Posts Tagged ‘natural history’

Fifty Shades of Grayness

July 16, 2012

Pandora Sphinx Caterpiller

Wooly Bear Caterpillar
(Isabella Tiger Moth)

I guess I should have realized that if I invested in fancy new lights, borrowed a cool and quiet generator and picked up a nifty pop-up white sheet contraption, it would rain on the night of my moth program, my favorite of the entire year. I’ve been the naturalist here at Hill-Stead for going on six years, and I’ve tried to offer programs that will excite, educate and entertain. And I’m shameless. I’d stand on my head in the center of Farmington, Ct (where we are located) if it would make people see how exquisite and vital nature is to us, and how much Hill-Stead offers in terms of natural beauty and value.

When I was a child I was scared senseless by moths. Something about their fluttery-ness, and their nighttime habit really blotted out all reason in me.  It was terrible-a naked, irrational phobia. And of course I had only seen the brown and gray jobs (talk about fifty shades of gray!) my mother referred to as “millers”.  “Don’t be afraid, its’ just a miller,” she’d say, as I freaked out.  What the heck is a “miller” anyway?

But later, as I grew as a naturalist I read of fantastic moths, pink and yellow, green, purple-and so important to the ecosystem.  I was hooked-and determined to get over my irrational horror. I bought a moderate set of UV lights, dragged a white sheet out of the closet and brewed up some sticky bait in a bucket. I pretty much try everything that I plan for the museum out in my backyard first, in case of glitches. It wasn’t easy.  The moths fly around your head when you bend near the sheet to examine things and for a while I had to wear one of those big hats with a veil. But in time I didn’t mind the moths brushing against me, and I felt kind of honored to be part of their soft yet scaly world. I taught myself everything I could using the old books that were around, Covell and Holland and a few others. I watched moth websites carefully. To me, it is a hard subject-there are twice as many moth species as butterflies. And as our resources become better we are likely to discover others. There is quite a bit to remember.  I don’t claim to be an expert, but I really want to spread enthusiasm about this wonderful topic.  Moths are as vital to the pollination of plants as bees are, for example.  But I don’t hear too many people extolling their virtues.  Yet.

Huge Geometer Moth I saw on vacation in the Caribbean

“Mothing” is growing in popularity these days, but it isn’t in the everyday vernacular right now. But National Moth Week is coming up soon,July 23-29 and I even have the T-shirt. People ask about it a lot (it has a really big silk moth silhouette on it) so it is a very good ambassador for the whole subject. Since my official Hill-Stead Moth Event was rained out, I’ve changed my plan for participating. I’m having a “Celebrate the Diversity of Life” party at my house. I’m putting up my lights and calling my friends on Wednesday July 25 from sundown until I can’t stand it anymore. You can come too if you want. Just contact the museum and they’ll put you in touch with me. Just don’t freak out when the moths.  You can borrow my hat with the veil.

See you on the trails,
Diane Tucker, Estate Naturalist

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Cleaning Out Bluebird Boxes

March 16, 2012

We’ve had a spate of early warm weather around here and though it wasn’t even St. Patrick’s Day the 60 degree temperatures had everyone in a springtime frame of mind.  All the same, it was late for cleaning them out.  So it seemed high time to get out there and get the job done, since Eastern Bluebirds have had breeding on their mind well before now.  It was so beautiful, I wasn’t sure my words could do it justice, so I decided to bring you along with me on my walk.  I hope you enjoy it.  To know more about both Bluebirds and Pussy Willows mentioned in the little film, there are earlier posts on the blog with more detail.

 

See you on the trails,

Diane Tucker
Estate Naturalist

They’re Ba-ack!

March 8, 2012

I would never let my husband buy a house without me.  I want to do my own picking, choosing and criticizing of wallpaper.  But it happens that people get sudden transfers and must jet off to find a new family homestead in 48 hours. Whoever stays home to pack the boxes has to rely on their partner to make a good pick.

Lady Red-Winged Blackbirds wouldn’t mind at all. Around this time of year, male Red-Wings are returning north in droves, along with other Icterids -a fancy word for blackbirds and their kin. Grackles, cowbirds, Rusty Blackbirds and others form large, loose flocks and begin making their way to summer breeding grounds. Males arrive two to three weeks in advance of the females, scouting out the best nesting sites. Here at Hill-Stead I start looking for them during the latter part of February. The population at our pond increases through the month of March as new waves of migrants work their way up north.  The minute I hear that first telltale Red-Wing call, I know that spring has really started. It’s a change-of-season bellweather, often before any meteorological warmth of significance has occurred. With Red-Winged Blackbirds in place, it isn’t long before Tree Swallows arrive and Wood Frogs begin calling. The wind may still blow chill, but the sun is a stronger one by the time the blackbirds come and with my outside work I begin a tan on my face and the backs of my hands. Glove-wearing is definitely over for now.

These Red-Wing fellows are handsome husbands, recognized by their shiny black feathers and the tri-colored epaulettes or “badges” on their wings. Of course, this is where their name comes from. The badges are an important key to the house hunting. The whole reason the birds are back early is to settle into an advantageous nesting territory, the better to snag a “trophy” wife. For the female bird will be looking for the chap who can optimize her breeding opportunities-the best nesting area and “go-getter”-type spouse will equal her greatest chance of having a large number of living offspring. Trophy wife, trophy husband, trophy real estate. It’s like the Farmington Valley in miniature.

The male Red-Wing uses his badges to remarkable purpose. They are red, yellow and white and the bird can flash them at will, showing the whole thing, or just a bit. In fact, he can hide them, too, in a kind of stealth move. Not unexpectedly, males use a big flash of the whole thing at birds trying to enter a territory they’ve claimed for their own. They are essentially saying, “No chance, buddy.” Having good badges indicates how far up on the social scale you are. Birds that are trying to get a territory of their own may hide their badges completely and enter an already claimed area to see how well the resident bird is apt to defend his spot. Really macho blackbirds even defend against the badgeless, just in case. Inexperienced or just plain foolish males may fail to defend, to their sorrow. Enterprising and stealthy badge hiders may sometimes manage to prise away a good territory. He who hesitates is lost!

Before long the tops of trees near our pond will fairly bristle with Red-Wings singing out and flashing their badges. There are, in my opinion, few things prettier than a flashing Red-Wing Blackbird at the top of a tree on a sunny day. It’s even better if he’s singing out his bold cry, “Conkareeeee!” Somehow these birds command attention in a unique way, and their looks and ways bring life into sharp focus. They remind me to live in the moment, leave the past winter to itself and breathe in the warming spring breezes.

See you on the trails,

Diane Tucker
Estate Naturalist

Simply the Nature of Nature

February 25, 2012

I’m not the most sophisticated naturalist in the world. I know some some birds, wildflowers and some science around living things,but I see myself as more of a carnival barker for nature. What I really want to do is shout, “Hey look at that, isn’t that neat? Here’s WHY!” I think in my line of work a certain ignorance may be a plus, which is obviously why my employer seems to be happy with my work. What I mean is it’s tough to get charged up about Acalypa Rhomboidea. But the common name Green Adder’s Mouth sounds mysterious and sexy. If you follow that salacious moniker up with the fact that it’s an endangered plant and not a dirty movie, an orchid growing 4-10 inches tall with miniscule flowers well- camouflaged by color that blossoms from June to August, well, cheeks may color with interest. (Folks blush about orchids more readily these days anyway, after that movie with Meryl Streep, The Orchid Thief.) So I use common names, not the Latin, when I go walking with groups.  What I want is for people to (quite literally) catch the nature bug.  They may catch it from me, and then go far beyond.  I try to be as infectious as possible.  Nature is important.

I’m not a scientist. But I sure am enthusiastic about the science of nature. It seems my I’ve spent my life walking outside and saying “What the heck is that?” Unable to leave the question unanswered, over the years I’ve scoured books and (these days) websites, gone to museums, and bought innumerable field guides in order to achieve a certain intimacy with the natural world. I’m comfortable there, and to a degree I see how it all goes together and why one thing needs another. Interdependence is a fundamental element of life. As humans we are included in that. And I think everyone ought to know it. So I’m shouting it out in my simple terms, the ones that most of us understand and grasp more viscerally.

I really wish they would stop teaching about the rain forest in elementary school classrooms. Don’t get me wrong, I find the rain forest as fascinating as anyone, and I worry about it a lot. But that’s why I want them to stop scaring the little kids about it. It’s pretty hard to teach about the rain forest without mentioning that it’s going to be a housing development before the children graduate from college. Why bother being excited about nature when there’s no point? That’s the lesson kids take away. Better to save the rainforest for middle and high schoolers and let them exercise some critical thinking on its problems. Instead, get the younger kids outside right here in their own environment. Show them how exciting their native forest is by letting them handle frogs and bugs, find crickets, catch fireflies, do the bee dance, learn their wildflowers. What we have here is as thrilling as the nature found all over the planet.

I’m lucky. I have Hill-Stead Museum’s woodland, wetland and meadows with which to dazzle visitors.  In a simple way I can show off the exciting nature of environment. In our 152 acres there is enough titillation for the jaded. We even have rare orchids.

See you on the trails,
Diane Tucker, Estate Naturalist

Splendor in the Grass

September 20, 2011

There has been an Funnel Web Spider living in the corner of our bathroom windowsill this summer.  I call her Svetlana, after the one-legged health aid in the “Sopranos”. TV’s Svetlana had nerves of steel and dispensed truth from one side of her mouth while the other was clamped down on a cigarette.  It took me a while to settle on a name, but I decided that in spite of the disparity in the number of their legs they had much in common.

My husband wanted to close the window the other night.  I told him flat out no and explained that Svetlana wouldn’t be able to make it out of her little funnel (which she cleverly built into the channel of the window sill) if we closed the window. John is a champ, and has gotten used to a lot over the years, so he didn’t even bat an eye when I explained I was talking about a spider.  He has even learned to feign interest,bless him, and asked what kind of spider was going to mean wearing a sweater while he brushed his teeth.  When I said, “Funnel Web”, he whooped “Whoa!  Poisonous!  The SAS Survival Guide says they are one of the most poisonous spiders in the world!”  I knew I shouldn’t have gotten him that book for Christmas.  But Svetlana is a NORTH AMERICAN funnel web, not the Australian spider the SAS warns of.  That is not to say, however, that she hasn’t got her own little arsenal of survival tricks.

Funnel Web spiders are sometimes called “grass” spiders, for their habit of making trampoline-like webs in the grass or shrubbery. If you look carefully you can sometimes see a little tunnel leading to who-knows-where in the grass or greens. This is where the spider usually waits for another bug to fall or fly into the web, whereupon the spider scurries out and bites the victim.  The insides of the victim liquify and the spider returns later and drinks him up.  The web doesn’t even have to be made of sticky silk to work perfectly.

Spiders can be quite pretty and FW’s are no exception.  They have stripey legs, and lines on their backs. There are usually eight eyes in rows of four over four which glitter if they catch the light properly. Of course, you can see all of this better and better as the spider molts its exoskeleton and gets progressively bigger, between four and twelve times in a summer, depending on the species.

Spiders are quite versatile, especially the Funnel Web.  This time of year the vegetation has lots of dew in the morning and when I walk in the meadow I can see many of their webs spread out on the grass like so much laundry drying, the shapes made visible by the moisture.  It’s fun but also a bit wicked to take a little branch and disturb the web ever so slightly so you can watch the spider dart out in the hope that a juicy meal has run afoul of her lines.

I made a little movie recently of some webs I found at Hill-Stead, and I added a few frames of Svetlana.  There’s a love scene  even though the whole thing only lasts four and a half minutes.  Don’t get too invested in the romance, though.  It ends badly for the fellow. Some spider brides kill the groom, wrap him up and eat him later. The couple in my movie are orb weavers, but unfortunately for male spiders, the habit is not confined to that species.

Get your popcorn, and I’ll see you on the trails.

Diane Tucker

Estate Naturalist

All Fixed Up

August 4, 2011

If I see another kid stomp on a bug during a nature walk, or scream and flail his arms around when he sees a bee I will lose my mind.  And that’s only the children.  You’d never believe some of the wacky things adults do on nature walks, like the school teacher who screamed and ran away and out of sight leaving 25 astonished third-graders with me and a sleeping garter snake we had just found under a bug board.  Or the dozens of people you see going down into the Grand Canyon in high heels.  But it’s little wonder when you consider how disconnected from life in the outdoors we are.  Most people who attend nature hikes are unschooled in basic natural science and history.  Many parents view nature hikes as strictly an entertainment for children, or for a springtime “science-lite” field trip from school with a hidden hijinks agenda.

But we have some little successes.  Two weekends ago I had a completely bug-phobic mother bring her children to “moth night”, our annual evening event when I bait trees and set up black lights to bring in moths and other night insects so they can be seen up close.  You have to love a heroic parent like that, but to her surprise and mine she had a blast.  Last weekend, I had kids and adults out in our meadow munching like happy cows on Queen Anne’s Lace roots, and arguing over the last bits.  Just in case you aren’t on any of the very worthy survivalist list serves around, Queen Anne’s Lace is the cousin of the carrot and the roots smell quite alike.  In darkness you’d be hard pressed to tell them apart.  But the QAL tastes like an old, woody carrot, not a fresh one.

Looking over our meadows at Hill-Stead there are loads of wildflowers keeping Queen Anne and her lace company right now.  Joe Pye Weed and Goldenrod are starting up, Black-Eyed Susan and Milkweed have been around a few weeks. The clover has been blooming for months.  Clover, a member of the pea or legume family, grows in white, pink (often called “red”), and yellow (called “hop”), as well as a fuzzy, ochre-colored one called “rabbit’s foot”. If your yard had clover, a “good” yard service would advise you to eradicate it with pesticides. Aside from the pretty colors and the near continuous blooming habit, here’s why you might consider a stay of execution.

Nitrogen. Essential for life, it’s in about 80% of the air you breathe and is called “free nitrogen”, though it’s anything but free to us since we can’t directly use the airborne variety.  Only “fixed nitrogen” is available to animals and plants.  Where do we get it? Plants need nitrogen in the form of either nitrates or ammonia.  These come from the soil, where they are dissolved in soil water, are taken up by the roots of the plants and start wending their way through the food chain.  But, how do the nitrates and ammonia get into the soil? Nitrogen is “fixed”, or converted from free nitrogen in the air to nitrates (or ammonia) in various ways. Of course, people can add nitrogen to soil in the form of fertilizer.  And lightening can cause reactions which result in the creation of nitrates.  There is also “nitrogen fixing bacteria” that converts free nitrogen from the atmosphere into a useable form. The bacteria have enzymes that cause the change. Here’s where the clover comes in. The bacteria live in nodules on the roots of leguminous plants,-yes! Plants like clover, with both good looks AND talent.

In short, clover unlocks a key to the entire food chain.  I love it, and I keep what I have growing in my yard.  Our meadows here at Hill-Stead are filled to the brim with clover-fixed-nitrogen and the food chain to go with it.  I love showing it off to visitors.  I don’t think that nature walks need to be treated as just a Sunday afternoon diversion for the kids, yet I don’t need everyone to be a citizen scientist, either. I would like for guests to come away from our programs with a fresh understanding of the outdoors, one that sees the human individual as part of the natural continuum, a steward and caretaker and, in fact, a party to the food chain itself. You don’t have to know the ins and outs of the nitrogen cycle for that.  But you do have to go outside once in a while and look at the clover.

If You Plant It, They Will Come

March 27, 2011

Some of my friends are on a “cleanse”. You need the book  to participate- $9.16 on Amazon.com.  You give up “obstacles to digestion” which apparently include eggs, nuts, dairy, tomatoes, eggplant, potatoes, peppers, meat, soy, cheese, wheat, and coffee.  Since this doesn’t leave a lot you can actually eat, there is a line of shakes and supplements, $425 for the most popular package.  Evidently people are contaminated with poisons from  a diet which presumably includes tomatoes and peppers (see above list for other possibilities), and it is recommended that the cleanse continue for at least a month.  If you have had the habit of eating any “allergen, mucous-forming or inflammatory” foods (see above), then you need to take and stay on a pre-cleanse program for a time before you can get into the actual cleansing. The more poisonous your previous diet, the longer the pre-cleanse.  Then comes the gastrointestinal scrubbing during which you will need to take pills with names like Clear, Equilibrium, Pass, Ease and so on. The image I got when I heard about these wasn’t good at all, especially “pass” and “ease”.

When you complete the tour of duty, you will feel energy and clarity, and be at least $434.16 lighter.  Starvation for the privileged.  But if you want to be on the cutting edge of weight loss fashion, look no further.  The book alone is a runaway bestseller.

I am polite about all this.  But I shudder at the frivolity while people the world over could eat for months on $425 and feel overfed.  Being riven with hunger is torture. Real starvation means the Cheezits aren’t six feet away in the cabinet if you tire of it.  The price of such hunger far exceeds $425. It is known, tragically, by millions.

On another plane, but no less pitiable is the deprivation known this winter by animals and birds throughout our area.  As the snow melted here at Hill-Stead I sadly found quite a number of bird and animal corpses.  In a harsh winter, hunger is a ruthless creditor.

This year birds gobbled up late summer berries like wild grape, pokeweed, poison ivy and blueberries before the fall was even over, so they had to start in on winter berries early.  Winter berries include cedar, sumac and winterberry.  They were in turn eaten up early. Starvation set in and with no other crop to draw from, many birds switched to eating alien and ornamental plants like multiflora rose and bittersweet. Without these foods as sustenance, I would  have found quite a few more corpses during my springtime wanderings. This got me thinking.  Because the birds had to switch over to eating invasive plants , it may mean that invasives will spread more than usual when spring warms up and the seeds dispersed by the birds begin to grow.

I began to consider the further effect of an increase in alien plants. I’ll use Hill-Stead’s experience with a butterfly, the Baltimore Checkerspot, as the perfect example. This insect has a favorite food.  And like a picky child, if the favorite food is unavailable it simply won’t eat.  But the bug has more gumption than most children, and it dies out in places where its’ preferred plant has died out.  No plant, no bug.  In this way, once common insects become more local then gradually go extinct.  Hill-Stead used to be a last gasp location for the Baltimore Checkerspot since we had quite a bit of turtlehead, the favorite plant. But the meadow began to be mowed in wider and wider margins, and the turtlehead went.  It was long before my time and anyone else here now. But the butterfly census folks still shake their heads, and so do I.  The Baltimore Checkerspot is not unique in its stubbornness. Every single insect is the same.

But here’s the thing: 96% of terrestrial birds (as opposed to sea-going birds, for example) feed their babies on insects and spiders. What determines how many and what kind of insects are around?  Plants! So, if we keep creating scenarios where invasives multiply, we will continue on a crash course with insect extinction and by extension bird extinction and by further extension, well, you get the idea.

Eastern Redbud (native)

Now it probably isn’t anyone’s specific fault that we had a bad winter and the birds had

Serviceberry (native)

to resort to eating multiflora rose hips.  But it is our fault if we fail to increase our use of native species when we plant around our homes, parks and ornamental gardens.  In this way, the birds and insects and everything that depends on them will have a leg up by having the proper food to eat. More native plants, more insects, more birds. More, please.

See you on the trails,
Diane Tucker
Estate Naturalist

Sanctuary!

January 13, 2010

When Theodate Pope came east from Cleveland to go to Miss Porter’s School here in Farmington, her letters reflect that she felt her new school and indeed, the town that housed it, was her sanctuary.  She didn’t cotton to the life of tea dances and frivolous time-killing that was her lot back home.  At Farmington, she enjoyed the study of languages, art, and classics.  The curriculum at Miss Porter’s was influenced by the intellectual life at Yale, where Sarah Porter’s brother was president.  Young Theodate revelled in the heady atmosphere of the school and the place.

Such was her feeling of asylum she determined to make her permanent home in the small but sophisticated Connecticut town. We know a lot about the building of the house, the architectural details, the pictures chosen, the stone walls built by masons brought from England.  When complete, it was a place of warmth and cheer, where friends and family installed themselves sometimes for months at a stretch.  Theodate built not just a structure, but a true home in every sense.

Every living thing fashions a dwelling. Certain animals have little use for complicated structures and a scrape of earth will suffice. But if real refuge is required, say from cold winters, more ingenuity is required.  Evidence of such is everywhere in the meadows at Hill-Stead once the snow flies.  One way to beat the cold is to huddle.  More than a dozen kinds of mammals who usually prefer solitude team up and share a bedroom for the winter. Temperatures in such shared quarters can be more than twenty degrees warmer than the ambient temperature outside.  Meadow vole nests may reach 50 degrees in the darkest days of winter.  The little “blow holes” where the voles come up for escape and air cover our meadows. Evidence suggests there are a lot of subnivean group snuggles going on at Hill-Stead.  Meadow vole nests have an echo of human homes about them.  There are distinct sections for bedroom, kitchen and latrine.  I had an apartment in New York once with the bathtub in the kitchen, so in that respect meadow voles are way ahead.

There is a more individualized way of doing things, for animals who just can’t stand the youth hostel atmosphere of a squirrel drey in January.  Instead of staying outside,they go inside! The Pope and Riddle families as country people certainly had their share of mice.  But they had cats. Today, the staff at Hill-Stead gamely stores every snack and lunch bag inside the refrigerator, and keep all the styrofoam fruit used to replicate Pope family mealtimes in metal tins.  Apparently even if it only looks like fruit, mice will eat it.

“Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in”. Frost writes “when”, not “if”.  Home is incontrovertible. We inevitably return there, if only in thought. It may be that home is not only a structure, but more like a state of mind.  If home is where the heart is, then Theodate was perhaps wiser than she has been credited.  She fashioned her home after her heart, the framework following the feeling.

See you on trails,
Diane Tucker, Estate Naturalist