You Won’t Sneeze with These

It’s the beginning of autumn, and the fields and forest edges are now draped in a golden cloak. The goldenrods (Solidago spp. and Euthamia spp.) are coming into their peak of flowering just as Monarch (Danaus plexippus) butterflies need them to fuel their 3,000-mile (more than 4,800 kilometers) journey to winter in the mountains of Mexico.

Goldenrods are pollinator powerhouses, and an important food for migrating Monarch Butterflies (Danaus plexippus). Photo by U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service – Northeast Region, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

There are 26 species of goldenrods in Connecticut. Although the British have many American goldenrods in their gardens for decades, here in the states we have only recently realized how important these native plants for are pollinators in our gardens. Other than cultivars, there are now even a few species that can be found for sale in most nurseries.

According to Jarrod Fowler of the Xerces Society and Sam Droege of the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, more than 10 species of native, pollen-specialist bees depend on goldenrods for food and to raise young. A big reason beekeepers can continue to gather honey in the fall is because honeybees really love the nectar and pollen late season goldenrod blooms provide.

Goldenrods are members of the aster family (Asteraceae), one of the largest plant families in the world. Their small, yellow flowers usually grow in a group, called an inflorescence.

Goldenrods are highly adaptable and are found from bogs to sandy seashores. Are you looking for a plant that will grow in dry shade? There’s a goldenrod for that. Try Wreath or Blue-stemmed Goldenrod (Solidago caesia). It doesn’t always show blue stems, but its bright, yellow blooms are right along the arching stem, looking like a wreath. I found it growing wild in my yard, propagated it from seed, and placed it in other areas. It’s one of my favorites.

. Wreath Goldenrod (Solidago caesia) has flowers all along it stems. It can grow in dry shade! Photo by Eric Hunt, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Zigzag Goldenrod (Solidago flexicaulis) is another species that will grow in shade, although it likes slightly more moist conditions. It gets its name from the way the stem zigs and zags between each set of leaves.

Zig Zag Goldenrod (Solidago flexicualis) is named for the stems which “zig” and “zag.” Notice its broad, toothed leaves too. Photo by R. A. Nonenmacher, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Seaside Goldenrod (Solidago sempervirens), which grows along the shore, is sometimes offered for sale. It is a tough plant for sandy soils and is tolerant of salt spray.

Seaside Goldenrod (Solidago sempervirens) found growing in sand dunes at Barnegat Light in New Jersey. Photo by Famartin, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Like the scent of licorice? Smell the leaves of Licorice-scented Goldenrod (Solidago odora). It likes sunny sites.

Goldenrods get bad press for being thuggish and spreading through rhizomes. All the above species, however, are clump-forming and usually won’t spread throughout garden beds. They can increase through seed. That’s not a bad thing. When you plant for pollinators, plant in large, three-foot (one square meter) squares, because bees and butterflies home in on color.

Downy Goldenrod (Solidago puberula) is found in sandy barrens in New England. In this photo, it was found growing in the thin soil at the side of an old road in West Rock Ridge State Park in Hamden, Connecticut. Photo by the author.

Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) is an exception. It spreads by underground runners and may not be appropriate for your site. It is the species that you see in fields and meadows. And a native plant that can compete and hold its own against invasive Mugwort (Artemesia vulgaris) is not a bad thing either!

Fields of goldenrod usually include Canada Goldenrod (Solidago candensis), which is introduced and invasive in Europe. Photo by Leonora (Ellie) Enking from East Preston, United Kingdom, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Other than being powerhouse pollinator plants, goldenrods are important ecologically in many other ways. Caterpillars that feed on them are in turn eaten by birds. The American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis), among many other birds, feeds on the seeds. The White-footed Mouse (Peromyscus leucopus) and Meadow Vole (Microtus pennsylvanicus) also feed on the seeds. They then are food for the Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis).

The biggest bad rap I still hear today is that goldenrods cause allergies. Not true! Goldenrod depends on bees and other pollinators to spread its heavy and sticky pollen. The allergy culprit is Common Ragweed (Ambrosia artemisiifolia), which is in flower at the same time. Its tiny, airborne pollen is spread by the wind.

There’s no excuse not to get on the pollinator pathway bandwagon and enhance your garden or local preserve with goldenrods. The bees will thank you.

A Murder Hornet It Isn’t

I recently heard from an agitated homeowner who thought she had seen a “murder hornet” in her yard. Are these insects in Connecticut? She hadn’t and they’re not. Before you reach for a can of insecticide, know that what she saw was an Eastern Cicada Killer (Sphecius speciosus), a type of digger wasp. Although it too has a scary name, this wasp is actually a “gentle giant” and a native Connecticut insect.

This female Eastern Cicada Killer has just stung and paralyzed its prey. She will bring the cicada to her underground nest and lay an egg inside it to provide food for her young. Photo by Judy Gallagher, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

The Asian Giant Hornet (Vespa mandarinia), the world’s largest wasp, is native to northern India and eastern Asia. It was discovered on Vancouver Island, Canada, in late 2019, and in Washington State shortly after that, where this year a second nest was recently eradicated. It has been nicknamed the “murder hornet” because it enters hives and decapitates the worker bees. Murder hornets pose a serious threat to the Honey Bee (Apis mellifera). These hornets can destroy a hive in just a few hours.

An Asian Giant Hornet (Vespa mandarinia japonica) queen. Notice her bright orange head and alternating bands of orange and black on her abdomen. Queens can grow to be over 2 inches (5 centimeters) long. Photo by Yasunori Koide, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

The United States Department of Agriculture, in cooperation with the Washington State Department of Agriculture, developed an ingenious way to find murder hornet nests. By trapping and hooking up a hornet with a transmitter, the scientists are led to its nest.

Comparison between the Asian Giant Hornet and Cicada Killer. Graphic by Katherine Dugas, Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station.

The Eastern Cicada Killer uses cicadas as food for its young. After mating, a female digs a tunnel in a loose, sandy patch of soil. Digging begins at the end of July in Connecticut and ends in mid-September. She flies into a tree, finds a cicada, and stings to paralyze it. It’s quite a chore for her to then take the cicada to her burrow, because her prey weighs almost twice as much as she does. She’ll climb up a tree to get some height and fly with the cicada as far as she can, often repeating this to reach her tunnel. There she will lay an egg inside it, and the cicada will become food for her offspring when it hatches. Research has shown that a paralyzed cicada actually lives longer than an unstung one!

A female Cicada Killer wasp hauling two paralyzed cicadas up a tree to get some height in order to fly to her nest. She will use two cicadas for the female egg instead of the male egg’s one cicada, as the female grows to be larger and needs more food. Photo by Larcolt, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Unlike murder hornets, which like Eastern Yellow Jackets (Vespula maculifrons) are social, colonial insects whose workers can sting repeatedly when their colony is threatened, Cicada Killers are solitary nesting wasps that don’t want to sting unless handled or stepped on. Even though solitary, these wasps will sometimes dig holes near one another in loose, dry soil they like. I once found five active tunnels in the sandy soil on the Yale Peabody Museum’s Horse Island in Branford, Connecticut. I was able to walk next to them with the insects flying around me. I wasn’t stung.

Japanese forest researcher Shunichi Makino described being stung by a murder hornet as “being stabbed by a red, hot needle.” For physiological ecologist Joe Coelho of Quincy University the sting of a Cicada Killer is “very mild, like a mere pinprick, and hurts less than the sting of a small sweat bee.”

Eastern Cicada Killer wasps are a part of our local ecosystem and help control cicada populations. Just let them be.

A Tornado of Birds

Along the Connecticut coast, birds are now gathering in large flocks as they get ready to fly to southern climes. Among them is the Tree Swallow (Tachycineta bicolor). By September, flocks of Tree Swallows will build into the thousands, called staging, before flying south.

A male Tree Swallow during migration. Photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren, CC BY 2.0 <;, via Wikimedia Commons.

This is a special event in nature’s seasonal calendar. At dusk along the lower Connecticut River in New England, Tree Swallows gather into large flocks, often flying in from upriver. I was privileged to witness this firsthand. Birds flew all around me and I watched them skim across the water to bathe and drink. As many as one million birds may funnel down like a tornado to settle for the night among Phragmites grasses on one of the islands in the river, in what legendary artist and ornithologist Roger Tory Peterson called “one of the great ornithological wonders of the world.” At a certain point at twilight you will see and hear thousands of birds spinning and swirling downward and, a few minutes later, all are quiet and still for the night. Local tour boats schedule their cruises to coincide with this amazing event (search “Connecticut River swallow cruise” in your browser).

Tree Swallows are found in open and partially open habitats, meadows, grasslands, and brushy areas, particularly near water. They favor areas that provide lots of flying insects and hunt for them over both water and fields. Swallows have also been known to grab insects off the water’s surface.

As secondary cavity nesters, Tree Swallows often use holes in standing dead trees that were previously excavated by other birds, like woodpeckers. People who have helped bluebird populations by putting up nest boxes and discouraging the aggressive, introduced House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) from using them have also helped the Tree Swallow, which nests in boxes with the same size hole and in the same habitat.

A Tree Swallow chick waiting for the next food delivery in a nest box at Sherwood Island State Park in Westport, Connecticut. Photo by Rhododendrites, CC BY-SA 4.0 <;, via Wikimedia Commons.

The female Tree Swallow will lay four to seven eggs in the nest cavity and incubate them for about 14 days. Both parents feed nestlings and the young leave the nest about 20 days after hatching. Their diet is mostly insects, including flies, beetles, winged ants, and mosquitoes. But during the colder months, when it is in its wintering range, a Tree Swallow will often switch up to 20% of its diet to fruits such as Southern Bayberry (Morella cerifera), as does the Yellow-rumped Warbler (Setophaga coronata) and Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus). A diverse, omnivorous diet allows these birds to stay longer on their breeding grounds, migrate shorter distances, and return to their nests earlier in the season, thereby decreasing competition for nesting sites.

Northern Bayberry (Morella caroliniensis) is found along sandy coastlines in the Northeast. Its gray fruit, called a drupe, is an important food for fall migrants. The fragrant fruit has also been used in candle making. Photo by Famartin, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

The Tree Swallow is a very vocal species and often “chatters” away with bubbly gurgles, whining sounds, and chips. Both males and females sing both in flight and from perches.

Although overall Tree Swallow populations seem to currently be stable, as insectivores they are vulnerable to the continued use of pesticides. Also, in the last hundred years many dead trees in yards and woodlots have been cut. Try to phase out your pesticide use and consider leaving snags, standing dead tree trunks, in your yard. When I need to take down a tree, I just have the tree service leave about 20 feet (about 6 meters) of the trunk.

You can also add an Eastern Bluebird (Sialis sialis) nest box to your yard, thereby attracting Tree Swallows. Don’t forget to add native, berry-producing shrubs such as Bayberry to your yard. With your help, we’ll be able to see these whirling bird tornados for years to come.

Poking Up Here and There

Growing in the wilder, unkempt edges of my yard are large bush-like plants with giant, red-stemmed stalks and bright green leaves. This is Pokeberry or Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana). Several have reached 8 feet (almost 2.5 meters) in height. Their greenish white flowers are now becoming reddish purple berries. Pokeberry is native to eastern North America with scattered populations in the West. It is usually found in fields, on roadsides, and along forest edges, not to mention backyards, and grows from 4 to 10 feet (about 1 to 3 meters) high.

Pokeberry is easily identified by its bright red stems and flower stalks, as well as deep purple berries. Photo by Chris Light, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

“Poke” is from puccoon, pocan, or poughkone, the Algonquin name for this native, perennial plant. The scientific name for the genus, Phytolacca, is from the Greek phytus, meaning “plant,” and lacca, meaning “crimson lake,” a reference to its deep reddish purple fruits. Both its stems and fruiting stalks are bright scarlet as well.

Pokeberries have been used to make ink and Inkberry is another of the plant’s common names. During the Civil War, when writing materials were in short supply, soldiers were known to write home using a Pokeberry dye and quills made from wild turkey feathers.

The stem, roots, leaves, and fruits of Pokeberry are poisonous to humans, dogs, and livestock. Among other toxic chemicals, Pokeberry contains phyolaccine, which causes severe gastrointestinal symptoms or worse. Eating large amounts of the plant can cause convulsions, respiratory failure, and even death. This plant should not be grown where young children might eat the berries.

Yet, there are folk recipes from Appalachia and the rural American South that use the new leaves from this toxic plant, after boiling in many changes of water. There are even poke salad, or “poke sallet,” festivals celebrating this tradition, although none now feature eating poke greens. One is the Poke Sallet Festival in Harlan, Kentucky. There is also a 1969 pop music hit, written and performed by Tony Joe White, called “Poke Salad Annie.” Eating Pokeberry leaves is not recommended though!

Each Pokeberry fruit has about 10 seeds. Several years ago, before I was making my own compost, I bought a bag of compost. Up sprouted Pokeberry seedlings! I wondered whether the compost hadn’t been heated (now required by law) or just that the seeds survived the heat treatment! Pokeberry seeds have an extremely hard coat and can last for 40 years in the soil’s seed bank. I am still seeing seedlings pop up from that commercial compost, but I think it is where I disturbed the soil.

As it matures, Pokeberry develops a large white taproot. Unwanted seedlings, which have a small taproot, can easily be pulled up. You might need to dig out the roots of a larger plant. Why would you let this plant, which most of us think of as a weed, grow in your yard? Pokeberry really is attractive and, unlike here in the United States, in Britain many gardeners are including it in their landscapes as an architectural statement.

A Giant Leopard Moth larva or caterpillar feeds on Pokeberry leaves. After resting as a pupa or cocoon, it will eclose or hatch into this beautifully patterned adult. Photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren, CC BY 2.0 <;, via Wikimedia Commons.

In these days of habitat and species loss, as well as climate change, we not only need to think about how a plant looks in our yards, but also what service it provides to the ecosystem. Pokeberry is one of the larval food plants for the Giant Leopard Moth (Hypercompe scribonia).  Although Pokeberry is toxic to mammals, it is not poisonous for birds and is in fact relished by them. It is an especially important food for fall migrants. Because of this plant, you might even get bird species you don’t normally see in your yard. Pokeberry is a superfood for the Gray Catbird, Northern Mockingbird, Brown Thrasher, Cedar Waxwing, Red-belled Woodpecker, various thrushes, and many more.

Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) are just one of the many bird species which feed on pokeberries. These birds have been know to pass food to one another so that all will get an equal share. Photo by Alan Rice, CC BY-SA 4.0 <;, via Wikimedia Commons.

So, if it is safe for your family, let a few plants poke up here and there and keep some in your yard for birds. It is a plant you don’t have to go out and buy. You probably already have it in your soil’s seed bank!

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, 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, 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, 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 <;, 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 <;, 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 <;, 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 <;, 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

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 <;, 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 <;, 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 <;, 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 <;, 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 <;, 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 <;, 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.