There’s a Fungus among Us

A few weeks ago, we got 4 inches (10 centimeters) of rain followed by temperatures in the mid-90s (around 35 °C). Perfect conditions for the growth of fungi. In a nearby school ball field next to a woodland, I spotted a small Giant Puffball (Calvatia gigantea) among many other kinds of mushrooms.

A Giant Puffball from Darien, Connecticut. In comparison to a human head, you can see how large Giant Puffballs can get. And, they can get much larger! Photo by Nowa, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Puffballs get their name from the habit of the mature fruiting body, the mushroom, to release clouds of brown spores when it is struck or bursts. There are several genera, including Calvatia, Calbovista, and Lycoperdon, that are known as puffballs, all in the division Basidiomycota. They are all grouped polyphyleticly, meaning that they share similar physical characteristics rather than a common ancestor.

Unlike most mushrooms, puffballs don’t have an outer cap of spore-producing gills. Instead, its spores are inside a round fruiting body called a gasterothecium (gasteroid means “stomach-like”).

The Giant Puffball is a saprotroph that feeds on non-living organic matter. It is more often found in meadows, grasslands, and forest openings, rather than in deep woods. It is seen throughout the eastern United States and Canada as well as throughout temperate Europe.

The species name gigantea is an apt description. Giant Puffballs have been known to grow to 59 inches (150 centimeters) or more in diameter! Typically, they can be from 4 to 27 inches (10 to 70 centimeters). Immature specimens are bright white. When seen from a distance they have been mistaken for soccer balls, and even sheep!

A mature Giant Puffball can contain trillions of spores—a 24-inch (61-centimeter) specimen can have 7 trillion! Why evolve to have so many spores? That amount ensures that at least a few germinate and grow to maturity. Imagine if each spore reproduced successfully. If one spore produced 12-inch (30-centimeter) offspring that all reached maturity, the resulting puffballs lined up would reach much more than the distance from the earth to the sun and back! Fortunately, that is impossible.

As a Giant Puffball matures, it develops cracks to release all those spores. Photo by Doug Bowman from DeKalb IL, USA, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

As it matures, a Giant Puffball develops cracks through which spores are released by the wind or by being stepped on by an animal. Other types of puffballs develop a hole at the top. The wind will suck out the spores like smoke from a chimney or spores can be forced out when the puffball is hit by raindrops.

Many species of puffballs develop a hole at the top for spores to be released. Photo by Kalyanvarma, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Puffball spores have been used medicinally. The Lakota peoples of western North America have used the clean, dry spores to pack wounds. The spores act like a coagulant to slow or stop bleeding and prevent infection. In the 1960s, researchers isolated clavacin from the Giant Puffball, one of the first substances developed from a mushroom to have anti-tumor properties.

The next time you see a sheep on the hillside, better look twice.

A Woody, Wee One

If you find yourself walking through open hemlock or pine woods, there is a good chance that you will come upon a small, woody, evergreen vine with shiny, bright green leaves—Partridge Berry (Mitchella repens). It has almost finished blooming now. But it is still possible to find both last year’s persistent bright red fruits and this year’s white flowers at the same time.

Partidge Berry in flower and fruit. Notice the two “dimples” where both ovaries fused to form one fruit. Photo by
Fritzflohrreynolds, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons.

The 18th-century botanist Carl Linnaeus first described Partridge Berry, one of many North American species he named. Its species name, repens, means “creeping,” an apt description. This is a non-climbing vine no more than 2.5 inches (6 centimeters) tall and 6 to 12 inches (15 to 30 centimeters) long. Partridge Berry is in the Rubiaceae family, which includes coffee, bedstraw, and madder.

The small, trumpet-shaped, pubescent, bright white flowers of the Partridge Berry are most fascinating. They are always produced in pairs, with both flowers arising from one calyx. On each fragrant flower there are four white petals, one pistil, and four stamens. The flower arrangement, however, is different on each plant. One plant can have flowers with a short pistil and long stamens, called the thrum form. Another plant can have a long pistil and short stamens, called a pin form. This prevents self-fertilization and encourages cross-pollination. These plants are often pollinated by bumblebees. When both flowers are fertilized the ovaries fuse to form a bright red, oblong fruit. You can see two dimples on the fruit where the ovaries are fused.

The fruits are eaten by partridges (better known as Ruffed Grouse [Bonasa umbellus]), wild turkeys, mice, foxes, and skunks. I find it interesting that this plant is named for a bird now uncommon in Connecticut. This is partly due to changes in our forests. Although our state is 60% forested, these lands are largely made up of mature trees. Ruffed Grouse likes secondary successional habitats—diverse environments with shrubby areas, trees of different ages, and forest openings.

The shiny, green leaves of Partidge Berry are opposite on the stem. Each leaf is about 1/2 inch (1.75 centimeters) long. Notice the white vein through the center of each leaf. The leaves in this photo are very shiny because I think it is raining! Photo by David J. Stang, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons.

Partridge Berry makes a great, evergreen groundcover under trees in your garden. Of course, never collect plants from the wild. It is best to get them from a local native plant nursery or from friends. It is relatively easy plant to propagate from one-year-old cuttings or by division. Then, come winter, go and check out the enticing flash of green and red on gray, cold days.


There’s a Buzz in the Air

There was lots of press coverage recently about Brood X, the 17-year periodical cicada emerging by the millions from the ground in 15 states, including Maryland, Ohio, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Georgia, and elsewhere. The males of these harmless insects can make a whole lot of noise when they call together to attract females. Their “wee-oh” calls remind me of a sci-fi movie scene when aliens are attacking!

The Decim Periodical Cicada (Magicicada septendecim) is characterized by reddish eyes and wing veins, a black. thorax and broad orange stripes on its abdomen. Photo by U.S. Department of Agriculture.

There are three species of periodical cicadas. In Connecticut we have the largest, which is the Decim Periodical Cicada or Linnaeus’s 17-Year Cicada (Magicicada septendecim). This brood, Brood II, last hatched in 2013 and won’t be hatching here again until 2030.

This map shows the various periodical cicada broods. Notice Brood X in yellow, which recently emerged, and Brood II in red, which won’t be emerging until the year 2030. Image by the U.S. Forest Service.

A periodical cicada spends either 13 or 17 years below the ground as a nymph sucking on juices from the roots of trees. Trees usually are not harmed by this feeding. When it is their time, the insects emerge en masse. Some scientists theorize that they do this to overwhelm predators such as amphibians, birds, and raccoons. Cicadas provide a good amount of high protein food, but with so many emerging at once many escape being eaten to carry on the species.

Cicadas emerge when the ground temperature reaches 64 °F (18 °C) at a depth of 8 inches (20 centimeters). The nymphs emerge from the soil and crawl up a tree or shrub. Then their nymphal “skin” cracks down the middle and the adult emerges.

Some call these insects 17-year locusts, which is a misnomer. Locusts are a type of short-horned grasshopper from the order Orthoptera. Cicadas are members of the order Hemiptera, the true bugs. They are closely related to leaf hoppers and plant hoppers.

Males attract females with their calls, which they make by contracting muscles in their abdomens. These muscles cause a tymbal membrane to buckle and make a clicking sound 300 to 400 times a second and as loud as up to 100 decibels!

After the winged adults mate, the female deposits 300 to 400 eggs in a slit she cuts in the bark of a twig or branch. A large swarm can damage a small tree by this egg laying and by the adults feeding on sap, but larger trees are not harmed. After the eggs hatch, the larvae drop from the tree and burrow into the ground. The adults die four to six weeks after mating.

A periodical cicada brood’s simultaneous hatches, with the males’ loud calls, are an amazing event in nature. But what most of us hear every summer are the annual cicadas. Like the periodical cicadas, the annual cicadas have nymphal stages that spend multiple years underground, although some species hatch every year.

The Dog Day Cicada (Neotibicen canicularis) is mostly black with green or greenish markings on the head and thorax and a black area on the central part of the abdomen beneath. Photo by Nadiatalent, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons

There are about seven common species of annual cicadas in Connecticut. Last week I heard the Dog-day Cicada (Neotibicen canicularis). I’ve often heard this species in pine and mixed conifer woods. It sounds like someone sharpening a tool on a grinding wheel. The most common species found in the eastern United States, and the one most of us hear, is the Morning or Swamp Cicada (Neotibicen tibecen). It’s hissing “shish” call rises and falls in intensity.

The Morning or Swamp Cicada (Neotibicen tibicen) is our most common species in Connecticut. Photo by xpda, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons.

Any species that spends multiple years underground and out of sight can, through time, be threatened by development. Many local broods have become extinct, such as some of Brood X on Long Island, when their resting places are paved over and built on. Thanks to the foresight of the late Yale entomologist Charles Remington, a section of land near Sleeping Giant State Park in Hamden, Connecticut, has been preserved as a cicada sanctuary. I look forward to 2030 when this amazing natural event returns to our area.

They Walk on Water

It hasn’t rained that much this month. Streams are very low, and fish and tadpoles are concentrated into smaller, deeper water, leaving a bonanza of potential food for Great Blue Herons (Ardea herodias) that are hunting. On a walk recently along a quieter, calmer streamside area, movement caught my eye. Lots of water striders were practically bumping into one other as they skimmed across the water’s surface. I made a video of their activity.

Common Water Striders (Aquarius remigis) stay buoyant through tiny hairs on their legs and “feet” that capture bubbles of air and are water-repellent. Photo by Mike Boone https://bugguide.net/node/view/23580.

These water striders have been here since the beginning of April, when I was rather surprised to see them out so early. Because they overwinter as adults, those had probably just emerged from dormancy and had spent the winter in nearby leaf litter. Many of the water striders that emerge now are wingless and so unable to fly. But those that hatch in late summer and fall have wings and can fly back to their overwintering sites.

Water striders show polymorphism, meaning “many forms.” If their pond or stream begins to dry up for the current, wingless generation, the next generation will have wings, enabling them to colonize new, more suitable habitat.

The insects I saw are probably the Common Water Strider (Aquarius remigis), a species found throughout North America. The scientific name translates very aptly as “water rower.” It is a member of the family Gerridae, one of over 1,700 species worldwide, and in the order Hemiptera, the true bugs.

Water striders are known for their ability to walk on water, hence the nickname “Jesus bug.” They do that by using the high surface tension of water combined with long, hydrophobic legs to distribute their weight. Their legs and “feet” are hydrophobic because they are loaded with tiny, water-repellent hairs. These hairs also capture tiny bubbles of air which help them float. There are also fringed hairs along their middle legs that thrust the water strider forward. The back legs help to steer and brake. This buoyancy allows them to skim across the water’s surface at relatively fast speeds for their size.

You can see in this photo of another water strider (Gerris spp.) how its long legs help to distribute its weight, making it easier to be buoyant. Photo by
TimVickers, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

A water strider is a highly efficient predator. Its front legs can sense vibrations that prey make in the water, such as the “snorkel” of a mosquito larva poking through the surface to breathe. It will then grab the prey with its front legs. Like all members of the Hemiptera, water striders have piercing, sucking mouthparts. Digestive enzymes break down prey into a liquid and the water strider then sucks up the juices. This efficient insect predator does its part in the balance of nature. And for some of us, anything that eats mosquito larvae can’t be all bad.

Bring in the Rare Butterflies

Like many of us, I enjoy browsing local nurseries. Often, you can run across a plant, shrub, or tree that you don’t see too often—something less likely to happen at gardening departments in big box stores. For example, about a year ago while browsing I noticed a tree for sale not often found in the garden trade in the Northeast: the Common Hackberry (Celtis occidentalis). I snatched it up immediately and planted it in a sunny place in my back yard. In the wild, this tree is grows in the alkaline soils of forests, near streams and rivers, and regenerating fields. But in your yard or garden it is very accommodating in a variety of soils in part-sun to sunny conditions.

The Common Hackberry sapling I bought last year is putting on lots of new growth. The tree can eventually grow to 50-100 feet. My dog Tucker decided to photo bomb. Photo by Willow Sirch.

Most herbaceous plants, shrubs, and trees take a few years to adjust to their new site, going through what’s generally called “sleep, creep, leap.” That is, they are relatively dormant the first year, start active growth the second, and flower in the third. My hackberry is thriving in its second year and putting on lots of new growth.

Why did I jump at the chance to plant a hackberry? The answer is simple: butterflies! Attracting a variety of birds to your yard with this tree is a plus, but it is the possibility of bringing in some rare butterflies that is the real bonus. There are a few butterfly species whose larvae (caterpillars) feed only on this tree. They include the Hackberry Emperor (Asterocampa celtis), the Tawny Emperor (Asterocampa clyton), and the American Snout (Libytheana carinenta). Although none are common, of these three species the Hackberry Emperor is the most often seen. The American Snout is seen only occasionally because it does not overwinter here, but migrates from the south.

Hackberry Emperor butterflies only lay eggs on Common Hackberry. Adults feed on sap, rotting fruit and animal dung. They are one of the few butterflies that will land on your skin to get salts, as you can see in this photo. Photo by Melissa McMasters from Memphis, TN, United States, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons.
Tawny Emperor butterflies are even less common than Hackberry Emperors in Connecticut. Photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons.
American Snout butterflies occasionally migrate north to spend summers in Connecticut. Notice in this photo the distinctive, elongated mouthparts which make the butterfly look like it has a “snout.” Photo by John Flannery from Richmond County, North Carolina, USA, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons.

Hackberry trees are members of the elm family (Cannabaceae). In the Midwest this tree is often used as a substitute street tree for the American Elm (Ulmus americana), which has been eliminated in many areas by Dutch elm disease.

The warty, pebbly ridges of Common Hackberry bark are very distinctive. Photo by R. A. Nonenmacher, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons.

The leaves of both American Elm and Common Hackberry are toothed. Elm leaves have a more oval shape and hackberry leaves are more elongated and pointed at the tip. Another way to identify a Common Hackberry tree is by its distinctive bark. The light to dark gray bark has pebbly, warty outgrowths on young trees that develop into corky, projecting long ridges on older trees.

The leaves of Common Hackberry are similar to American Elm but are more elongated and pointed at the tips. Photo by R. A. Nonenmacher, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons.

The common name hackberry is from the Old Icelandic heggr meaning “bird-cherry tree” and ber meaning “berry.” Early colonists confused the hackberry’s fruits with the round, fleshy fruits of the Bird Cherry or Hagberry (Prunus padus), a common Old World tree in the Northern Hemisphere. Both trees attract many types of birds to their fruit.

Hackberry produces an abundant crop of orange-red to dark purple drupes, which are one-seeded fruits. Fleshy parts of the fruit are edible and taste a bit sweet, hence another of its names is Sugarberry. However, there is a related species also called Sugarberry (Celtis laevigata) found in the southeastern United States.

A wide variety of birds are attracted to Common Hackberry fruits. Photo by Gmihail at sr.wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 RS <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/rs/deed.en&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons.

Let’s get back to those rare butterflies. As adults, the Hackberry Emperor and the Tawny Emperor feed on tree sap, carrion, rotting fruit, and animal dung. The American Snout nectars on a variety of plants, including dogbanes (Apocynum spp.), Sweet Pepperbush (Clethra alnifolia), and goldenrods (Solidago spp. and Euthamia spp.).

The two Emperors are often associated with each other. Researchers have found that they display niche partitioning. That is, they don’t compete with each other. Tawny Emperor larvae usually feed on older leaves, whereas Hackberry Emperor larvae feed on younger leaves.

So keep an eye out for this remarkable tree. If you find it and have room in your yard, plant one. Before you know it, you’ll be hosting and enjoying some rare native butterflies.

Triplets Again

Triplets again—for the third year in a row! I’m not talking about prolific humans, but the Bald Eagle (Haliaeeatus leucocephalus) pair nesting in a giant Cottonwood (Populus deltoides) tree along the Quinnipiac River marsh in Hamden, Connecticut. This nest site is in the Hamden Land Conservation Trust’s Henry and Irene Gargiulo Wildlife Refuge. The three chicks are now flapping and testing their wings in the nest. Any day now, they will fly out to a nearby branch and be taking off by the end of June.

Bald Eagles are impressive birds, with up to eight foot (2.4 meters) wingspans. A healthy eagle population is an important indicator of clean water and a resulting high fish population. Photo by Maishe Dickman.

Bald Eagles usually lay two eggs. Successfully raising three chicks is relatively rare for eagles. It is a sign of experienced parents, as well as the clean water with plenty of fish in the Quinnipiac River ecosystem. The expansion of the Clean Water Act in 1972 really made a difference in U.S. waterways.

Eagle nests were not always successful. From the 1950s to the 1980s there were no nesting Bald Eagles in Connecticut. The persistent pesticide DDT had traveled up through the food web and caused endocrine problems in eagles. Eggs had thin shells and eagles were unsuccessful in rearing chicks. The Yale Peabody Museum was among the institutions that documented eggshell thinning through specimens in its collections.

The Bald Eagle was one of the first species put on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s endangered species list in 1967. DDT was banned in the United States in 1972. Bald Eagles and other raptors slowly began to recover. This recovery has been a real success story. In 2007 the Bald Eagle was removed from the list.

During the 2019 breeding season there were over 316,000 Bald Eagles in the lower 48 states, including more than 71,000 breeding pairs. In 2020, Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) staff and volunteers recorded 47 successful Bald Eagle nests that hatched 88 chicks, smashing earlier records.

According to Connecticut DEEP Eagle Nest Watch volunteer Mike Horn, the female eagle at the Henry and Irene Gargiulo Wildlife Refuge nest in Hamden laid three eggs. A chick hatched every few days at end of February. Eagles have evolved to lay eggs not all at once, but sequentially, as insurance. If something happens to the first chick there is another to take its place. Although obligate siblicide, in which a larger chick kills its sibling, occurs in some eagle species, it is rare among Bald Eagles. According to Connecticut DEEP biologist Brian Hess, chick mortality is caused by sibling competition when there is a lack of resources and usually not by direct attacks from a larger chick.

The three eggs hatched during the week of April 5, 2021. After a few weeks, it was thought that there were two chicks because the parents were bending over and feeding in different areas of the nest. After about five weeks, the smaller third chick was seen poking its head over the nest rim.

At first the parents will bring fish and break it into smaller pieces to gingerly feed their chicks. As they grow, food is left whole and the young will do the work.

When eagle chicks are very young, parents will break up and feed the young small pieces of fish. In this photo, you can see both parents feeding in different parts of the nest, which is a clue that there in more than one chick. This photo was taken in mid-April 2021. Photo by Mike Horn.

Bald Eagle nests can grow to be huge structures weighing up to a ton (907 kilograms). An eagle pair will add sticks to the nest every nesting season. They don’t remove leftover food and just add sticks and leaves on top. Sometimes pairs will build a new fresh nest nearby.

The chicks are growing quickly. The smallest chick who hatched last is on the right in this photo. These triplets should fledge and be in the air by the end of June 2021. Photo by Mike Horn.

With so many wildlife species in decline of late, a boom in Bald Eagle populations is a real conservation success story. But it is one where we need to be vigilant in maintaining clean waterways and restricting harmful pesticides. That way, wild Bald Eagles will continue to thrive.

Love ‘Em and Leave ‘Em

I am always pleasantly surprised, when tromping through the woods, to come upon Pink Lady’s Slipper (Cypripedium acaule) in full flower. I have fond memories exploring the Pitch Pine (Pinus rigida) woods as a boy behind my grandparents’ backyard on Cape Cod. Large stands of Pink Lady’s Slippers grew in the duff under the pines. They are in flower now and I recently found about 20 plants growing in a stand of mature White Pine (Pinus strobus). This species likes the acidic soils under conifer stands.

The Lady’s Slipper flower on the left shows the slit in the labellum that bumblebees will squeeze into to try to find nectar. It is like a lobster trap in that they can’t exit the same way they came in. Notice the duff, the decomposing pine needles that the plant is growing in. Photo by the author.

I was surprised too that these plants had not been gobbled up by the White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) that now overpopulate Connecticut’s forests. This must be because the plants were just off a hiking trail used by lots of people who walk their dogs there. The dogs’ marking activities filled the area with a “predator” scent.

Pink Lady’s Slippers are members of the second largest plant family: the Orchidaceae. Although fairly common, Pink Lady’s Slippers are declining in many areas from habitat loss, careless overcollecting, and browsing by deer. Deer eat native plants like these orchids and leave unpalatable non-native, invasive plants. It is not the fault of the deer, but ours. Our grassy yards interspersed among patchy woods have created the perfect edge habitat for deer. Most of Connecticut’s other orchid species are also much more threatened by these factors.

A Pink Lady’s Slipper depends on bumblebees to pollinate it. The bumblebees are attracted by the color of the flower, hoping to find nectar. But it is a trick—there is no nectar. The bees enter a small slit in the labellum, the modified petals that form the “slipper” (which gives rise to its other name, “Moccasin Flower”). Once inside, the bee crawls under an anther that attaches a sticky pollinium, or pollen sac, to the bee’s back. When the bee flies to another Pink Lady’s Slipper to try again, it passes under the stigma, which removes the pollinium and fertilization then takes place. The bee leaves through a small opening in the back of the flower. As in most members of this plant family, the pollinated flower forms a capsule that then dries and splits open, releasing lots of very tiny seeds.

Because bumblebees often don’t visit another Lady’s Slipper flower after not getting a nectar reward, successful pollination rates are rather low. If successfully pollinated, the plant will form a capsule filled with small seeds. Photo by Susan Elliott, CC BY 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons.

The tiny Pink Lady’s Slipper seeds do not store any food, so they need to interact with a Rhizoctonia fungus in the soil to survive. The fungus gives the seed nutrients for germination and growth. As the plant grows larger, the fungus will in turn get nutrients from the orchid’s roots. This is a symbiotic relationship that has evolved over millennia in which both species benefit.

Pink Lady’s Slipper seeds are tiny! Photo by Charles de Mille-Isles from Mille-Isles, Canada, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons.

It is this relationship with fungi and the need for acidic soil that dooms this orchid when people dig up Pink Lady’s Slippers from the wild and try to transplant them to their yards. It is best to enjoy these stunning flowers where they live, take a photo, and leave with a happy memory.

A Black-winged Red Bird

Some birds are always a treat to see, whether they are brilliantly colored or less common. One of my favorites is the Scarlet Tanager (Piranga olivacea). Males are the reverse in coloration from the male Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus). A male Scarlet Tanager is a deep red all over except for jet-black wings. The female Scarlet Tanager is a yellowish, olive-green with grayish-black wings and tail.

The bright red body and jet-black wings and tail of the male Scarlet Tanager is unmistakable. From genomic studies, Scarlet Tanagers have recently been moved taxonomically from the tanager family, Thraupidae, to the cardinal family, Cardinalidae. Photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons.

Scarlet Tanagers have recently arrived from spending the winter in the mature, mountain forests of western and northern South America. To see one here, visit a large tract (minimum 70 acres, or about 28 hectares) of mature oak, oak-hickory, or mixed hardwood-hemlock forest in Connecticut. A good way to find a Scarlet Tanager is to listen for its song first and then locate it. It is usually high in the tree canopy. The song is like that of a hoarse American Robin (Turdus migratorius), so it is often called “the robin with the sore throat.” Tanagers also have a very characteristic “chick-burr” note in their call.

Female Scarlet Tanagers are yellowish-olive in color with grayish-black wings and tail. Photo by Matt Osborne, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons.

A Scarlet Tanager’s diet is mostly made up of insects, including ants, sawflies, dragonflies, cicadas, moths and butterflies, and their larvae. Like its southern cousin the Summer Tanager (Piranga rubra), which is better known for this behavior, the Scarlet Tanager will engage in “bee bashing.” It will hit and rake a bee or wasp against a branch to remove the stinger before eating it. When passing through our area during the spring migration, Scarlet Tanagers can often be found in large oak trees feeding on moth larvae (caterpillars). Oaks host over 400 species of these larvae, making these trees an important keystone species for wildlife.

Scarlet Tanagers will also eat native fruits, including raspberries and blackberries (Rubus spp.), shadbush (Amelanchier spp.), chokeberries (Aronia spp.), and Red Mulberries (Morus rubra).

Nests are usually on a horizontal branch high off the ground, often as high as 50 feet (about 15 meters) or more. Female tanagers lay an average of four light blue eggs. Eggs will hatch in about 10 to 14 days and the young can fly after a few weeks.

For these young birds to successfully fledge they need large tracts of forest. In smaller, fragmented forests these birds are not as successful due in part to nest brood parasitism from the Brown-headed Cowbird (Molothrus ater), which is more common in these edge habitats. Female cowbirds lay their eggs in tanager nests. The female tanager cannot distinguish the cowbird chicks from her own and will try to feed both, but the cowbirds will outcompete the tanager chicks for food. In a study in western New York State, tanager fledgling success was only 22% in patches of woods compared to 64% in an undisturbed hardwood forest.

Female brown-headed cowbirds lay eggs in tanager nests. Female tanagers will unknowingly raise cowbird chicks. Cowbird chicks hatch earlier and will outcompete tanager chicks for food. In this photo, a cowbird egg is in an Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) nest. Photo by Galawebdesign, CC BY 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons.

By helping to protect large tracts of forest and wildlife corridors, you can keep these spectacular birds safe in the future. Plant a native oak tree to give them an important migration “fuel stop.”

A Traprock Ridge Specialty

Imagine walking in what is now central Connecticut 200 million years ago, when magma rose through cracks in the land as the great supercontinent Pangaea split apart. In the New Haven area, the magma cooled and formed intrusive, or underground, diabase rock. For millions of years the softer sandstones that later were deposited above this rock eroded, leaving the harder, igneous East Rock and West Rock ridges standing as sentinels surrounding Connecticut’s Central Valley today.


Engraving of West Rock by John Barber Warner, 1825.

These kinds of hills are commonly called traprock ridges, and Connecticut is known for them. Trap is from the Swedish trappa, which means “stairway.” These igneous rocks often cleave off at 90 degree angles, forming walkable steps in many places. The drier microclimates and shallow soils of these ridge tops are unique habitats for flora and fauna.

West Rock Ridge State Park, with its dark basalt rocks, is a heat island for some butterfly species normally found much farther south. One such species that is relatively rare here in Connecticut is the Falcate Orangetip (Anthocharis midea). In the southern part of its range it is found in open, wet woods along streams and rivers and in open swamps. But here, at the northern part of its range, it is confined to traprock ridges. Why the difference? It may need warmer temperatures and these ridges can be warmer than the surrounding valleys. Also, it is ecologically tied to the plants found growing in this habitat.

The Falcate Orangetip butterfly is named after the orange patches on the males and the falcate or hooked forewings on both males and females.
Photo by Ray Simpson.

After mating, Falcate Orangetip females search for plants that are members of the mustard family. They usually deposit only one egg on each plant. At West Rock, females often lay eggs on Lyre-leaved Thale-cress (Arabidopsis lyrata).The larvae (caterpillars) often feed at night on flower buds, flowers, and fruit. They must feed and then develop as pupae before the spring-blooming plants complete their cycle.

Falcate Orangetip larvae feed on members of the mustard family, particularly Lyre-leaved Thale-cress (Arabidopsis lyrata). Notice this caterpillar feeding on the flower buds. Photo by Carol Lemmon.

Unfortunately, Falcate Orangetip females sometimes lay their eggs on invasive, non-native Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata). The larvae that eclose (hatch) and eat this plant, poisonous to them, die. To protect this butterfly and the other plants it feeds on, it is important to both control Garlic Mustard and preserve traprock ridge habitats.

Falcate Orangetip butterflies will occasionally lay their eggs on Garlic Mustard, but the plant is toxic to larvae and will kill them. Photo by Katja Schulz from Washington, D. C., USA, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Falcate Orangetips are sexually dimorphic. Both males and females are white above with a back spot on the upper forewing. Males also have a bright orange patch on the outer forewing. Falcate means “hooked” and refers to the hooked upper forewings. Along with the orange patch on the males, this hook is a way to differentiate this species from the more common, introduced Cabbage White butterfly (Pieris brassicae).

The outer wings on Falcate Orangetip butterflies are marbled and have evolved to blend in perfectly with lichen on trees. Photo by Ray Simpson.
Larry Gall, Entomology Collections Manager at the Yale Peabody Museum (center) , shows the group a Falcate Orangetip butterfly caterpillar while others hunt for eggs and larvae. Notice the habitat, a the rocky, ridge top with shallow soils.

Now is the time to find this springtime butterfly on traprock ridges. Falcate Orangetips are out hilltopping, or patrolling for females. They fly just above the ground and often repeat the same route. If you would like to get out this weekend to see this butterfly, join Larry Gall, Entomology Collections Manager at the Yale Peabody Museum, for a free Connecticut Butterfly Association spring walk at West Rock Ridge State Park in New Haven on Saturday, May 8, 2021. For details and directions visit the CBA website.

Put a Little Spice in Your Life

On a walk recently I noticed one of the first native shrubs to flower this spring—Spicebush (Lindera benzoin). Its small, yellowish-green flowers really stood out among the sea of bare branches. Spicebush is dioecious, with male flowers on one plant and female flowers on another.

To identify a male or female plant, look closely at the flowers. In this inflorescence you can see the circle of stamens on each male flower. Photo by
USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab from Beltsville, Maryland, USA, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
Notice the “bowling pin” shaped pistils with white stigmas on these female flowers. Photo by Mary Anne Borge www.the-natural-web.org.

If you find this plant, you can really only identify its sex by looking at the flowers. The inflorescence, or arrangement of the flowers, on the male shrub is a cluster each with a round set of nine stamens. The female shrub’s inflorescence is a cluster of flowers each with a bowling pin-shaped pistil. There aren’t as many female shrubs in the wild as males. The ratio is approximately one female for every ten males.

The pollen and nectar that Spicebush’s flowers provide is very important for early solitary bees and flies. Once pollinated, in late summer and early fall the female flower develops into a bright red fruit called a drupe, a single-seeded fruit with a fleshy covering. These red drupes attract birds like the Wood Thrush (Hylocichla mustelina) and are an important food for birds during their autumn migration. Birds spread these plants when they eat these fruits and excrete the fertilized seeds elsewhere.

With its tropical-looking foliage and bright red fruits, Spicebush makes an attractive shrub for your yard. These fruits are favorites of Wood Thrushes, Veeries and Hermit Thrushes. Photo by Cody Hough, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons.

The leaves of Spicebush are simple, smooth, and a medium-green color above and lighter green below. A great way to identify this shrub is to look for its alternate-leaved, olive-brown branches with whitish lenticels, or pores. Spicebush grows in rich soils, often near streams and wetlands. If you think you’ve found it, crush the leaves. If it is Spicebush, the leaves will release a sweet, citrusy aroma. This is a great activity for children, because the scent is so dramatic. Try it even in winter by scratching and sniffing the branches. During the Civil War, Spicebush tea was used as a substitute for coffee when rations ran short. Both dried leaves and twigs were steeped in hot water to make a tonic.

Spicebush is one of the few northern members of a mostly tropical plant family, the Lauraceae, or laurels. Members include well-known foods and spices, such as Bay Laurel (Laurus nobilis), cinnamon (Cinamomum spp.), and Avocado (Persea americana).

The only other member of this family in our area is Sassafras (Sassafras albidum). The leaves from this tree also have a spicy scent. Sassafras and Spicebush are the larval food plants for both the Spicebush Swallowtail (Papilio troilus) and the giant Promethea Silkmoth (Callosamia promethea). To find a Spicebush Swallowtail larva (caterpillar), look for leaves that are rolled lengthwise. The caterpillar uses threads to create a tube-like space for itself. You might be surprised to see the large, snake-like false eyes on later stage, or instar, larvae. When threatened, the larva even puts out a foul-smelling osmeterium (an organ used for defense) that looks like a snake’s forked tongue! This insect has certainly evolved some amazing adaptations to keep from being eaten.

To find Spicebush Swallowtail Butterfly larvae, look for rolled leaves. These caterpillars spin silk to attach one side of the leaf to another. Photo by Andrew Brand.
The last growth stage or fifth-instar Spicebush Swallowtail larva has evolved large, false eyes that make it look like a snake to predators such as birds. The true eyes are near the mouth. Photo by Judy Gallagher, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons.

You can sometimes find the resting, or pupal, stage of Promethea Silkmoths, which look like dead leaves, hanging from Spicebush branches in the winter.

Promethea Moths are a large silk moth whose larvae also feed on spicebush leaves. Photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons.
In winter, look for curled, dead leaves hanging from Spicebush branches. You might have found a Promethea Moth cocoon. Photo by Meganmccarty, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

With its early spring flowers, attractive foliage and fruits, and important connections to wildlife, Spicebush makes for a great native shrub for your yard. Plant one and help early bees, butterflies, and silk moths.