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.

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

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 <;, 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 <;, 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 <;, 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.

If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Eat ‘Em

Last summer I pulled up a bunch of Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata) that has invaded the edges of my property with a vengeance. It is rather easy to pull the entire plant, roots and all. But what I didn’t realize was that I was also pulling up its 50-year seed bank and that one plant was probably replaced by 50 or more seedlings. As in the Greek myth, I felt like Sisyphus fruitlessly pushing the rock up the hill. This year I am going to put wet cardboard down over the plants, followed by a four- to six-inch layer of old wood chips. Non-native invasives like these can take over habitats from native plants. And they aren’t eaten by insects, so fail to provide the roles in ecosystems that native plants do.

Garlic Mustard has heart-shaped leaves with scalloped edges. One good way to identify it when not in flower is by crushing the leaves, releasing the garlic odor. Photo by Tom Parlapiano.

I am determined, however, to get back at those plants in another way—by eating them! Garlic Mustard is a biennial, having a two-year growth cycle. It has a basal rosette of small green leaves its first year and is evergreen through the winter. The second year it grows larger, sends up a stalk with white flowers, and, after releasing thousands of seeds, it dies.

One reason Garlic Mustard is so prolific is that, after flowering, one plant can produce up to 3,000 seeds! Photo by Katja Schulz from Washington, D. C., USA, CC BY 2.0 <;, via Wikimedia Commons.

According to experts that forage for wild plants, the second-year roots taste like horseradish. You can also eat the second year leaves. Gather the leaves (plants growing in the shade are usually less bitter), blanch them in water, and mix with olive oil and cheese in a blender to make a pesto. There are also many Garlic Mustard recipes online.

A word of caution: Garlic Mustard contains traces of cyanide, which is one way the plant defends itself from predators. Many members of the mustard family—such as broccoli, cabbage, and kale—also contain traces of this toxin. To be on the safe side, limit wild mustard collecting to once or twice a month. Cyanide is also water soluble, so blanching or boiling the leaves before consumption measurably reduces cyanide levels.

Now is also the time to gather one of the most destructive invasive plants out in the wild: Japanese Knotweed (Fallopia japonica). For the next few weeks, until about mid-May, the new reddish, asparagus-like shoots of this plant are yours for the taking, and you don’t have to worry about overharvesting! Actually, when picked, smaller shoots will arise again and can be gathered later. They taste a lot like rhubarb, tart and crunchy, and can be used as a substitute in apple–rhubarb crisp or strawberry–rhubarb pie.

The time to gather Japanese Knotweed is in the spring when it is a few inches high, or from new shoots after it has been cut. Photo by the author.

Wild Garlic, also called Lawn Garlic or Onion Grass (Allium vineale), is an introduced plant from Europe, northwestern Africa, and the Middle East. It can be found growing in many lawns. This plant makes a great substitute for Ramp or Wild Leek (Allium tricoccum), a native plant that has been overharvested and is now vulnerable in many areas. Wild Garlic can be dug up and the small bulbs used as a flavoring in soups. The slender leaves can be sliced up and used just like chives. Some natural food markets are selling it for $3.00 per bunch!

Wild or Lawn Garlic is often found growing in our yards. It has a strong garlic flavor. Photo by Willow Sirch.

Another plant on the top 10 invasive nasties list is Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris). I am constantly pulling this plant to try to get rid of it. But doing that can be futile, as it has underground stems (rhizomes). If any tiny piece is missed, a new plant will grow. Author and wild food forager Tama Matsuoka Wong says the feathery leaves are “awesome as tempera.” Martha Stewart has a Mugwort soup recipe.

Mugwort or Common Wormwood is found in the wild on the beaches of northeastern Asia but has spread across the Northern Hemisphere. Photo by Mrs. Gemstone from USA, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Before you harvest any of these invasives, make sure you know the history of the soil where the plant is growing. Roadsides, parking lots, and other potentially contaminated ground may have high levels of lead and other pollutants. Also, be sure you can identify the plant properly and not be confused by look-alike plants that could be toxic. Go out with an expert forager if you are unsure.

Meet expert foragers Gina Rae La Cerva and Alexis Nicole Nelson through the Yale Peabody Museum at the free webinar “Feasting Wild: A Conversation on the Politics, Pleasures, and (Bio)diversity of Foraging” on Thursday, April 29, 2021 at 5:30 pm. Register here. Happy foraging!

They’re Here Already

Soon waves of migrating neotropical birds will pass through our area. They will be feeding furiously on hatching insects in the tree tops this May, but some have already arrived and have been here for weeks.

One of the first neotropical migrants to arrive, in March in Connecticut, is the Eastern Phoebe. Notice the bird’s rictal bristles near the base of the beak. It was long thought that these bristles help the bird capture prey, but it may serve a sensory function helping the bird know its speed and orientation in the air. Photo by Peterwchen, CC BY-SA 4.0 <;, via Wikimedia Commons

Eastern Phoebes (Sayornis phoebe) flew in from the southern United States and from as far south as Mexico, where about a third of these flycatchers spend the winter. Some Pine Warblers (Setophaga pinus) are permanent residents in Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas. Many winter as far south as eastern Mexico and the Caribbean and migrate north in the spring. One of the most common wintering neotropical migrants where I sometimes vacation in southwest Florida is the Palm Warbler (Setophaga palmarum), a species that also winters in the Deep South and the Caribbean Islands.

Even when migrating, pine warblers are aply named and can often be found in pines. Listen for their song’s “liquidy” trill. Photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren, CC BY 2.0 <;, via Wikimedia Commons.

Why do these insect-eating birds arrive so early? Eastern Phoebes come here as early as March, occasionally even when ponds are not free of ice. Pine and Palm Warblers arrive a few weeks later. It may be that arriving early is an advantage for these species that lets them claim open nesting territories. But this sometimes comes with a price. Late winter and early spring snowstorms could prevent them from finding food.

The large, explosive spring hatches of flying insects and moth larvae haven’t happened yet, so what are these birds feeding on? Most of the Eastern Phoebe’s diet is made up of flying insects, but they also eat spiders, ticks, and millipedes, and occasionally small fruits and seeds. Pine Warblers poke through bark, needles, and pine cones looking for dormant insects and early arriving birds are often seen searching through leaf litter for insects and other arthropods. They will also eat seeds and berries. Although Palm Warblers glean insects off tree bark and jump up for flying insects, they habitually feed on the ground and can even be spotted foraging there with sparrows. They will also eat bayberry (Morella pennsylvanica) and hawthorne (Crataegus spp.) fruits. So, an advantage these early migrants have is that they are adapted to finding food on the ground and eating fruits and seeds.

Palm Warblers, along with Eastern Phoebes, are one of the few birds that bob their tail up and down. They can be identified by their yellow bellies, rufous crown and streaks along the breast. Photo by Rhododendrites, CC BY-SA 4.0 <;, via Wikimedia Commons.

The Eastern Phoebe and Pine Warbler both nest in Connecticut, but the Palm Warbler is just passing through. It nests farther north usually on the ground in tamarack (Larix spp.) bogs of the boreal forest.

The Eastern Phoebe can be identified by its slate gray back and relatively large, dark head. It also wags its tail up and down. This bird gets its name from the song of the male: a raspy “fee-bee”.

The Palm Warbler also pumps its tail up and down. Both these birds and phoebes are among the few species that do this. The adult has a gray back, rusty coloring on the crown (top of the head), and rufous-colored streaks on its yellow belly. Its song, a weak, buzzy trill, is not frequently heard.

The Pine Warbler also has a yellowish belly, but its wings are gray with white wingbars and it has a yellow ring around its eyes. There are indistinct olive streaks on the sides of its breast. The male’s song is a long, liquidy trill.

Before migrating, these birds build fat reserves up to 50% of their body weight. Once these reserves are used during migration, the birds need to stop and refuel. Dave Ewert, senior conservation scientist with the American Bird Conservancy, describes three kinds of habitat that migrant birds look for.

“Fire escapes” are used in times of stress when birds are exhausted, starving, or disoriented. Under such emergency conditions, they stop at any habitat they can find. Small patches in urban and industrial areas can be fire escapes for migrants.

“Convenience stores” offer more abundant and higher-quality food and shelter, and are larger than fire escapes. Birds prefer them over fire escapes if they have a choice. Suitable habitats in parks, suburban gardens, and isolated rural woodlots are important convenience stores for migrants.

“Full-service hotels” are sites with the best habitat—plenty of nutritious food for refueling, safety from predators, and adequate shelter from inclement weather. These sites are natural areas, undeveloped rural lands, parks, and relatively large wildlife refuges.

Whether you live near a fire escape, a convenience store, or a full-service hotel, plant native perennials, shrubs, and trees that attract insects. Think of your yard or nearby park as a thing of beauty, not only because these plants are attractive to us, but because they are important refueling stops for these colorful birds.

Marsh Marigold, or Perhaps Not?

I look forward each year to looking along streams to find one of my favorite spring wildflowers soon to be in bloom—Marsh Marigold (Caltha palustris). But it has an exotic cousin, a look-alike that threatens its existence and that of other native spring ephemerals such as Trout Lily (Erythronium americanum) and Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica). It is Lesser Celandine (Ficaria verna).

Marsh Marigold is not a marigold but related to buttercups. Its species name palustris means “of the marsh or swamp. ” It’s a very fitting name, for in the wild it is rarely found far from water. Photo by the author.

Both Marsh Marigold and Lesser Celandine (also called Fig Buttercup, Pilewort, and Fig-crowfoot) are in the buttercup family, Ranunculaceae. They both have heart- or kidney-shaped leaves and yellow flowers.

So how do you tell them apart? Lesser Celandine’s leaves emerge really early in the spring, as early as February, and they are out now. When you are driving or hiking, look around to see what plants are in leaf. Many non-native invasives like Japanese Barberry (Berberis thunbergii) and Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata) will leaf out before native plants, thereby outcompeting them for light. Check out stream and river banks and pond edges. Marsh Marigold is usually near the water’s edge. Lesser Celandine is more adaptable and can also be found in rich soils farther from water, even in sunny yards.

Flower of Lesser Celandine (Ficaria verna). The species name “verna” means spring. The plants are done flowering and the leaves shrivel up usually well before June. Notice there are more yellow petals than the yellow tepals of Marsh Marigold. The flower stems or pedicles are usually shorter than in Marsh Marigold. Notice two of the three green sepals in the top left flower in this photo. Marsh Marigold doesn’t have green sepals. Photo by Michal Osmenda from Brussels, Belgium, CC BY-SA 2.0 <;, via Wikimedia Commons.

Lesser Celandine is a slightly smaller plant and flowers earlier than Marsh Marigold, usually in March or April here in Connecticut. If you see flowers on plants in late April to June, you can be almost certain it is Marsh Marigold. Marsh Marigold has 5 to 7 yellow tepals (undifferentiated petals or sepals), whereas Lesser Celandine has 7 to 11 yellow petals and 3 green sepals below the petals.

Invasive Lesser Celandine can form huge, extensive mats if left unchecked. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has predicted that it could establish itself in 79% of the continental United States. Now that’s an adaptable plant! It can do this because it forms tubers, which break off very easily through ground disturbance and flooding. After flowering, Lesser Celandine also forms bulbils in its leaf axils. This vegetative little bulb is a clone and can become a new plant.

A large invasion of Lesser Celandine along riparian habitat in Pennsylvania. Notice that nothing else is growing here. This plant is currently spreading west in the United States. Photo by Cbaile19, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons.

How do you control this plant? If you have a small patch, try to eliminate it before it spreads into a monoculture. Control small patches by hand-digging the plant, making sure to sift out all tubers and throwing them in the trash. The tubers and roots are in the first 3 inches (about 8 centimeters) of the soil. Larger incursions are more difficult to control.

The tubers of Lesser Celandine are found just below the soil surface and break off quite easily and each can form a new plant. Be sure to sift through the soil carefully to remove all of them. Photo by Christian Hummert (Ixitixel, CC BY 2.5 <;, via Wikimedia Commons.

Marsh Marigold’s deep yellow flowers, larger than those of Lesser Celandine, are very striking near water. If you have a damp place in your yard in part to full sun, try growing it. It is sold at nurseries, particularly for plantings next to water or in rain gardens. Be sure to ask that the plants sold are nursery propagated.

Lesser Celandine is more invasive than other plants because it can spread vegetatively in more than one way. Notice the small white bulbils that form in the leaf axils. Each one of these bulbils can form a new plant. Photo by SiGarb, CC BY-SA 4.0 <;, via Wikimedia Commons.

Native plants like Marsh Marigold have spent thousands of years co-evolving with the pollinators in their ecosystem. Insects are co-evolved to feed on its leaves or gather its pollen and nectar. They in turn are fed on by birds. The nectar and pollen of the flowers of Marsh Marigold attract flies and bees, including the Giant Bee Fly (Bombylius major), syrphid flies, and halictid bees.

Yet, in a few decades, Marsh Marigold can be undone by non-native thugs like Lesser Celandine. By knowing the difference between the two and giving the native a chance to compete we can control the invasive and ensure a healthy ecosystem, even on a small scale like our own backyard or nearby streams.