Thursday, September 11, 2014

Oh Deer, One Naturalist's Perspective

I might be what one might term as an "animal lover."  The current critter count includes five six orphaned squirrels, four orphaned opossums, a non-releasable blind skunk and a non-releasable brain-damaged opossum, three abandoned cats, and one adopted dog.  Oh yes, and a yellow-bellied slider looking for a home (if anyone has space for a good-sized turtle with a lifespan of several decades, let me know...).  I have been known to drive "rescued" fawns around the park for hours, looking for their mothers from whom they'd been kidnapped by well-meaning but uninformed park visitors, and then driving them several hours to a licensed rehabilitator when the mother could not be located.  I am, on the other hand, a bit of a realist as to how nature actually works. I think baby mosquitoes are adorable, actually, but that won't stop me from dumping them out of my birdbath before they can grow up to bite me or anyone else. Sometimes the mice/earthworms/crickets are friends, sometimes they are food for the hawk, snake, turtle, and frog (I try not to turn friend-mice into food-mice. The food mice come frozen, generally.  Snakes, however much we might wish it to be otherwise, just do not eat plants, or even hamburgers).  You could quibble over the details, but on the whole, I suppose I qualify.  And as an animal lover, I firmly believe a deer hunt is the most compassionate, beneficial thing we could do for those very animals that I love, including the deer.  A little counterintuitive?  Here are a few points that might help clarify:

1.  I'm not a vegetarian.  Although I try to cut back on meat when I can for environmental reasons (eating lower on the food chain uses fewer resources, 100 pounds of grass to produce 10 pounds of cow, livestock waste does sad things to our waterways, that sort of thing) and seek out humanely-raised meat when time and budget and availability allow, I am fully aware that some days it is highly likely I am eating an animal that suffered deplorable conditions at a factory farm, that may have died inhumanely, and by purchasing such meat I could also be supporting deforestation of rainforests and other devastating environmental impacts.  As an omnivore, I don't have any sort of moral footing to oppose the hunting of cage-free deer that have lived their whole lives in the wild, that will die relatively humanely (and argue that as you will, death for a wild animal of old age is rarely a quick and easy thing - for a deer it generally means starving to death once their teeth are too worn down to chew), the hunting of which will help return an ecosystem to balance.  (For all of you vegetarians out there, I salute you!  And thank you, for your kindness to our planet.)

When I was a child, I used to play a game with my friends where we rescued the wild animals from the evil hunters.  Of course, I hadn't actually met a hunter or been to any sort of hunt.  I grew up, and now I have.  I don't like hunting, personally, just as I don't like most organized sports or cilantro, but I realize my brain is not everyone's brain and I am happy to know there are people who like these things and do them well and ethically (yes, there are bad eggs and hunting practices I give the major side-eye, but that's not what I'm referring to here and not in any way shape or form what we want at Eagle Creek), and I am happy to let them do it.  They fill the role of the wolves, the mountain lions which no longer roam our forests, keeping the deer population from increasing to the point where they eventually start dying from starvation and disease, and taking down countless other species along the way.

A population-control deer hunt is not a free-for-all, not a trophy hunt (deer are not at all monogamous, so removing one buck, or even many bucks, has little effect on the population - it just takes one buck to father several dozen offspring).  It doesn't leave traumatized fawns crying for their mothers like in Bambi - this is why hunting season doesn't begin until November, when young deer are fully weaned and the does are not pregnant yet.  It does give those fawns a better chance to survive; I feel most sorry for the youngsters in overpopulation conditions, especially during the winter when they are just a little shorter than the adults, and are unable to compete to reach the last bits of browse.

2.  I'm an animal lover, but I'm also a gardener.  When I started at Eagle Creek Park as a wide-eyed seasonal naturalist, back in 1994, I learned my way around the nooks and crannies of the park by hiking with the Sunday Morning Birdwatchers, led by the Amos Butler chapter of the Audubon Society.  I learned my birds, of course, but also plants and flowers from the other nature-lovers on the hike, and even then the deer were beginning to have a negative impact on the flora of the park.  The birders talked every spring about the lady slipper orchids; we would go out seeking the places where they once grew, but we never found them.  I never did get to see any, at least not at Eagle Creek.  They're one of the first to disappear when deer populations start to get out of balance.  The snow trillium was still there, however!  A tiny white trillium that is one of the first to bloom in spring, as early as February sometimes.  When I came back as a full-time naturalist in 2001, I looked for it every spring, but never found it again.

Now as a gardener I struggle to find plants for wildlife plantings around the Earth Discovery Center - the butterfly garden is brightly colored and a visiting butterfly will find plenty of nectar, but only through the graces of non-native annuals like zinnias and tropical milkweed, one of the few things the deer will not touch (yet.  Even my native common milkweed has been deer-nibbled, toxic as it is).  My native New England asters and purple coneflowers have been nibbled to stubs, and manage a flower or two at best.  The ironweed, cup plant, Joe Pye weed, and my beloved queen of the prairie do their valiant best, springing back again only to get browsed over and over.  In my yard at home, deer-free, I see their potential realized- springing to their full exuberant 6-foot-plus heights and hundreds of flowers covered with bees and butterflies and buzzing with a whole plethora of happy pollinators.  In the park, in the wild areas not planted and supplemented with well-behaved non-native nectar species or guarded by fences and deer-repelling sprays, the pollinators are losing out.

Unbrowsed New England asters at my home garden:  over 7 feet tall and full of countless bees and other pollinators, including three monarch butterflies in this photo.  This species is particularly important for monarchs because it blooms so late in the season, providing vital nectar-fuel for monarchs on their long migration to Mexico.

Deer-browsed New England aster in our butterfly garden at Eagle Creek, barely a foot tall.  Although New England aster will regrow after being browsed, it comes back shorter and with fewer flowers.  Ours has been so severely browsed this year it completely failed to flower.

An attempt to grow some native beneficial plants at Eagle Creek - in order to keep them alive they have to be caged.  This may help on a very tiny scale, for educational purposes, but obviously is not a way to provide wildlife habitat on a useful scale.

 A few orchids, a few forest wildflowers, less diversity and short nibbled plants in prairie and meadow and butterfly garden, what's the big deal?  A lot harder to garner sympathy for a green plant than for a big, furry mammal with liquid brown eyes and long eyelashes, but the roots of those green plants entwine with fungus and trees, they are nests and homes and food and nutrient pathways and countless other connections we have only the faintest glimmerings of understanding.  The deer don't browse the milkweed (at least not much) that Monarch caterpillars need, but that's only part of the equation - the adult butterflies need nectar, and that means variety, many different species of flowers blooming all summer and into fall - the New England asters also are only one piece of the puzzle.

The leaves of our native plants support countless native caterpillars and insects, which in turn feed baby wrens and bluebirds, robins and sparrows, cardinals and nuthatches and all the other wildlife bug-eaters (invasive non-native honeysuckle and garlic mustard can provide a lot of lovely green, but they are barren as far as wildlife food and homes without their host of bugs and ecological connections from Europe and Asia, where they originated).  One gone, two gone, three's a game of Jenga, pulling out pieces until something topples and we lose a species forever.  Everything in nature is connected, more than we can ever imagine.  We may not see or understand all the connections, but as Aldo Leopold wrote, "to keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering." If we do nothing, if we do not tinker with the deer situation at Eagle Creek, we're going to lose a lot of cogs, a lot of wheels.  We have lost several already.

3.  I'm an animal lover, but I love ALL animals, and most especially the weird and peculiar, the slimy and unloved.  There are plenty of people who will speak for the deer, but who will speak for the red-backed salamanders and snails and millipedes?  The wood thrush and the ovenbird?  The countless other creatures, walking sticks and red velvet mites, western chorus frogs and short-tailed shrews, the meadow jumping mouse and brown creeper, little cogs, little oddbucket wheels, beloved only by eccentric park naturalists and ecologists and very small children, each of them miracles in their own right, essential mechanisms to the ecosystem.  All of these species depend on a healthy, diverse forest understory.  A trained eye looking at Eagle Creek will find only things growing that deer will not eat - spicebush and paw paw, white snakeroot and invasive honeysuckle and garlic mustard, or, like my butterfly garden, woodland plants nibbled into shadows of their potential selves, like the shortened Jack-in-the-Pulpits of spring. The browse lines throughout the park are epic, once you know what you're looking at, and every time I see it my heart breaks for the forest and everything that lives there.  The wood thrush isn't the most spectacular of birds, but it has a lovely subtle beauty, and the call cannot be compared.  I first learned that call at Eagle Creek many years ago, but now I can't remember the last time I heard a wood thrush.  Many factors could be at play, including that I'm not able to get out on the trails as much as I once was, but  decimation of the understory by deer browsing is a likely culprit.

4. Oak trees.  According to Doug Tellamy's keystone book "Bringing Nature Home", an oak tree supports the caterpillars of over 500 moth and butterfly species.  In addition to its more well-known role of providing acorns and shade and shelter, those caterpillars are tasty and nutritious snacks for baby songbirds (even the seed-eaters mostly eat bugs and caterpillars when they are babies).  For supporting wildlife, an oak tree is one of the best species to plant (the big selling point of the non-native Bradford Pear, by comparison, is that they have "virtually no insects that will eat the leaves" - since they're not from around these parts the local insects haven't had the thousands of years necessary to adapt to the plant's chemical defenses.  Great if you want perfectly round unblemished leaves.  Not so great for hungry baby birds.)

Here's what happens to an oak tree planted at Eagle Creek Park:

Oak tree leaves are full of tannins, bitter and difficult for most mammals to process - that the deer resort to eating them in the park at all is indication of how little high quality food they can find.  Nibbled as high as a deer can reach, this little oak is still hanging in there - this one was planted as a sapling, old enough to maybe survive and overcome, but what chance would a sprouting acorn have?  And even this one is highly unlikely to survive unless fenced and barricaded - male deer seek out trees of just this size, convenient to rub the velvet from their antlers in late summer and fall.  Most of them end up bent, broken, or girdled - striped of their outer layer of bark until nutrients and water can no longer flow from root to leaves:

What is the future of the forest at Eagle Creek, without the oak trees?  We can put up fences, barricade and protect a few, but not a whole forest's worth. One hundred years from now, what acorns will become the new generation of mighty oaks, if the deer nibble them all to twigs?

 5.  And finally, the deer themselves.  The human impulse to compassion for species that are not our own is a good one, a great one, a vital-to-our-own-survival one even, and should be encouraged, but compassion without knowledge can end up shooting itself in the foot (it's the same compassion-without-knowledge that attempts to feed dogs vegetarian diets, "protects" the prairies and forests of the west from fire, not realizing it is an essential part of their survival, "rescues" orphaned wildlife that are not really orphans, cuddles and pets the adorable sweet wild baby rabbit, not realizing it is actually frozen in terror).   

Deer are truly remarkable mammals, able to survive and even thrive past their ideal population levels, eating a hundred different varieties of plant material, switching and adapting to the less palatable varieties as they become more and more crowded.  That we have too many deer at Eagle Creek for a healthy ecosystem is undeniable - if you only visit the park in the day during the summer and aren't familiar with the plant diversity of a healthy forest, it's easy to think all is well, but come around 6pm in February.  In a single drive around the park I counted 98 deer this year, grazing and standing along the roads in the open.  We're not making this "deer overpopulation" business up just for the fun of it. Here's another good overview of the issue, which stretches across many states.

The impacts on the forest and plants and other wildlife are real, significant and severe, and only getting worse, and even though deer are resilient, it has started to impact the deer themselves. The deer at Eagle Creek are...not exactly in prime condition.  If you've only seen slightly skinny, scraggly deer with no other basis of comparison, it's easy to think that's what they're supposed to look like, but again, if you know what you're looking at you can see the signs that the deer in the park are struggling.  They have full round bellies, because they are eating and eating and eating, but the ribs still show because what they are eating has such poor nutritional quality. (I am reminded of a story about one of my relatives, who moved to the country and was excited to own a horse for the first time.  She put the horse out to pasture and thought all was well, but a neighbor had to let her know her horse was starving.  She didn't realize her horse could not live on what grass was in the pasture; she didn't recognize the signs of starvation in a large hoofed mammal because she just didn't have a basis to compare).  

Deer are supposed to be crepuscular creatures, active at sunrise and sunset, not out in the open in midday, frantically scouring mowed areas for any scrap of edible greenery (another naturalist side note: deer are browsers, not grazers - they aren't adapted to eat grass, but they can find tiny forbs,tiny leafy plants in among the grasses).  However, the deer in the park are not to the point where they are dying wholesale of starvation and disease.  Not yet.  I sincerely hope we can do something to bring their populations to a healthier level long before it comes to that. 

It won't be fun or easy. I've already been accused of being a heartless killer, told that friendships are over, listened, at length, to angry rants, insults, and threats.  I was not surprised by this.  I've worked with the public for a long time; deer overpopulation is not a new problem (this post is already long enough - if you've read the whole thing, gold star! but one more quick point.  The two alternatives inevitably brought up are just not practical or even humane: 1. shipping the deer somewhere else - trouble is, deer tend to die, a lot, when you do that.  Deer just don't ship well, and everyone else has the same problem of overpopulation.  2.  Contraception - Bloomington looked into that recently, too. Edit 9/26/14 - in a nutshell, if you don't have time to follow the link and read all the info, the chemicals proposed for deer birth control are either not yet approved (GonaCon) or not commercially available (PZP) for use in Indiana, neither are currently endorsed by IDNR, and even if they were to be approved, they are only considered possible although still highly experimental options for closed, suburban populations, not populations of free-ranging deer in open natural areas like Eagle Creek.  Maybe someday we'll be able to just sprinkle some deer-specific birth control feed around the park once a year, but that day has not yet arrived.  All you young up and coming researchers out there, put your thinking caps on!)  

So, doing the right thing has been hard, but on the other side, I've also listened to words of support of all joys...ecological understanding!  People getting the big picture and seeing the completely critical connections among living things.  It's enough to make any park naturalist's day, yep.  

As unpleasant and distressing as it is for me, personally, to know that a certain number of people will be terribly unhappy with us, I will continue to support a deer hunt, for the good of the park and for the deer.  Although I'm not planning to pull any triggers directly, yes, I will be a killer, although I hope not a heartless one.  Of course, so are we all.  Vegetarian or even vegan, until that happy day when we can all photosynthesize our energy and every other need directly from the sun, life lives off of other life, that is the world we are given. Where we draw that line of which lives to take, directly by our own hands or indirectly by our choices, what we buy, what we wear and eat, where we live, where and if and what we drive, how we vote, where we step, whether we exterminate the spider in our house or coax it into a cup and release it, whether we support a deer reduction for the long term health of the forest, birds, and other wildlife or fight to have Eagle Creek Deer Park full of hungry but adorable deer and very little is up to each of us to decide.  May we always do it in compassion and as much knowledge as we can bear.    

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Northern Water Snake Shedding

Yesterday our Northern Water Snake was shedding her skin underwater - in the video you can see how she presses against the aquarium glass to help peel away the old skin, pretty cool!

Northern Water Snakes are one of the most common snakes encountered at Eagle Creek Park - they are non-venomous, but sadly are frequently confused with the venomous Cottonmouth (aka Water Moccasin) which only occurs in one location in extreme southern Indiana.  Northern Water Snakes usually swim or slither away as fast as they can if they encounter a human, but if grabbed or cornered they'll defend themselves by biting vigorously.  Like most wild animals, they're best enjoyed with a hands off approach!

This particular Water Snake happens to be fairly mellow for her species - she generally doesn't try to bite or strike when handled, although she does have an occasional grumpy day (and who doesn't?)

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Chorus Frog Eggs

During the volunteer walk this week we stopped for a moment by the pond to search for amphibian eggs. Smallmouth Salamanders lay their eggs as early as February, if there is an early thaw - this year spring came rather late, so they didn't get to the ponds until the first few weeks of March. Western Chorus Frogs and Spring Peepers are early breeders as well - we've been hearing the comb-like trilling of the Chorus Frogs for several weeks now, and the Spring Peepers call mostly during the evening.

Tom N. took a photo of the Chorus Frog Eggs we found attached to a stick in the pond - thanks Tom! Amphibian and reptile eggs in Indiana are protected. It is illegal to remove them from their pond or nest, although after checking with IDNR we were told it was ok to look at them briefly, for educational purposes, as we are doing here.

Smallmouth Salamander Eggs would be similar, but not quite so many and a bit larger. The Chorus Frog eggs will hatch within a few days to a few weeks, depending on the temperatures (with 80 degree days predicted, the eggs will probably develop quickly!). The tiny tadpoles will spend about two months in the pond, feeding on pond scum and algae, before going through metamorphosis and leaving the pond as tiny froglets about the size of your thumbnail. The froglets and adult frogs will spend the rest of year living in the forest, rarely seen by humans, will hibernate under the leaves and in underground burrows made by other animals, to emerge again in the spring and head to the pond to start the cycle all over again!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Baby Praying Mantises

Over the summer we found several big green Praying Mantises around the Earth Discovery Center. We kept one for several days in a container to show students and visitors, and to our delight it laid a brown, styrofoam-like egg case (also known as an "ootheca" - pronounced "oo-oo-thee-ka") on the lid. We planned to put the egg case outside, but instead it got pushed to the back of the reception desk and forgotten about. One day at the end of November we were sitting at the desk and noticed a tiny yellow creature scampering across the phone - the egg case had hatched early due to the warm temperatures! We spent the rest of the afternoon rounding up the 50 or so baby mantises that had scattered all over the desk, floor, and walls.

We kept them all together in a large screened cage for their first few weeks where there was a pretty high attrition rate - so far we have six survivors. This is probably similar to their survival rate out in the wild; most of the hatchlings would fall prey to larger insects.

Here are the six survivors, now living in vials with a foam plug on the top. We put them in the smaller containers so we could keep a closer eye on whether or not they were getting enough food. The cottonballs at the bottom are for moisture, and the smaller black dots in the containers are fruit flies for the baby mantises to eat.
Here's a close up of one of the little doobers - even at this size they have all the personality of the larger mantises. They tilt their heads and wash their legs and antennae, almost like cats.

This one is munching on a fruit fly. A mantis eats by grabbing the prey with its folded pair of front legs and then digging right in and munching on the fly once it has a good grip. As the mantises get bigger, we will switch them to larger insects like crickets.

As the mantises grow, they crawl out of their old skins, leaving an empty "molt" behind. It's amazing how you can see every detail on the empty skin, even the antennae, and the spikes on the front pair of legs. The mantis hatchlings with molt several times until they reach their adult and final molt, at which point they will have fully developed wings and will be able to fly. This process, where the young insects closely resemble the adults, is known as incomplete metamorphosis. Insects such as butterflies, beetles, and flies, which have a larval forms known as caterpillars, grubs, and maggots and form a pupa before the adult stage, go through complete metamorphosis.

Contrary to popular belief, praying mantises in our area are not endangered, and you won't go to jail if you kill one although we'd prefer that you didn't. We have three species of praying mantis in our area: the native Carolina Mantid (Stagmomantis carolina) and two introduced species, the European Praying Mantis (Mantis religiosa) and the Chinese Mantis (Tenodera aridifolia sinensis).

Our babies are of the Chinese Mantis variety - they will eventually reach between 3-5 inches in length. The adults are often brown with green stripes down the edges of the wings. Chinese Mantises were introduced into North America in the late 1800's as a source of pest control - these are usually the species shipped if you order mantis egg cases in the mail, although the release of non-native species is usually frowned upon in most areas.

The native Carolina Mantis is much smaller than the Chinese Mantis - usually around 2 inches, and is often a dusty brown in color. The European Mantis is slightly larger and often pale green in color.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

White Squirrel

All summer we have been getting reports of a white squirrel in the park, living somewhere between the Marina and the Earth Discovery Center, but never managed to actually see it. Finally a park visitor, Richard Gentry, managed to snap a photo and kindly offered to share it:The patches of normally colored fur on the belly and dark eyes indicate that this squirrel is probably leucistic rather than albino. Albino animals have reddish eyes, while leucistic animals usually have normally pigmented eyes. This squirrel seems to be surviving well so far, but abnormally colored wild animals are often easier targets for predators due to their lack of camouflage. He or she also appears to be a fox squirrel, the common species found in the park.

The mutations that cause albinism, leucism, and other similar conditions can occur in humans, birds, fish, reptiles, insects...pretty much any creature that possesses color pigments. Many of our domestic animals, such as rabbits, chickens, and laboratory rats and mice, have been deliberately bred to produce white animals.

Several years ago I raised a litter of orphaned opossums with one leucistic baby, who stayed with me as an educational opossum:

For some animals, like polar bears, snowy owls, and mountain goats, having white fur or feathers is a survival advantage, not a liability, allowing them to adapt and survive in cold and snowy climates. A few, such as the Arctic fox and snowshoe hare, can even shed their fur and change from brown to white as the seasons change!

Check out this website if you'd like to see more photos of these fascinating "Ghosts of Nature"

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Late Summer Wildflowers

We usually think of spring as the time for wildflowers, but a surprising number of flowers bloom throughout the summer. Some of my favorites appear towards the end of summer - I know that when the purple ironweed blooms, fall is not far away!

Queen Anne's Lace, Daucus carota, also known as wild carrot, is a familiar sight along roadsides and open fields. It was introduced from Europe and is considered an invasive weed in many areas, as it can outcompete native plants; however, the leaves do provide food for the caterpillars of the Black Swallowtail Butterfly. The large, carrot-like taproot is edible. Not surprising when you consider that the "wild carrot" is actually the ancestor of our modern cultivated carrots. Use extreme caution if you decide to take a nibble - Queen Anne's Lace closely resembles the deadly poisonous Water Hemlock! Both are members of the parsley family, Apiaceae, which also includes Fennel, Caraway, Anise-seed, Rattlesnake Master (an unusual prairie plant), and Celery.

The flowers of Queen Anne's Lace are compound --composed of many tiny flowers clustered together. They often have one or more dark purple-red flowerlets at the very center, drops of Queen Anne's blood where she pricked her finger while making lace, at least according to legend.

Ironweed, Vernonia altissima, one of my favorite "weeds" of late summer. They usually begin blooming in August in meadows and along roadsides, and their tall vibrant purple blooms are a favorite of bees and butterflies. Ironweed is a member of the aster family, Asteraceae.

Wild Forget-Me-Not, Myosotis sylvatica, is another exotic species, introduced from Europe and Asia. It prefers rich, waterside soils, and has been blooming all summer along the marshy inlet at the base of the amphitheater. Forget-Me-Nots are often used as a symbol of enduring love. In a rather sad legend about the origin of the name, a knight fell into a river while walking with his sweetheart, and tossed her this flower that he pulled from the river's edge, shouting "forget me not," before the weight of his armor pulled him under.

Virginia Spiderwort, Tradescantia virginiana, is a native perennial that blooms mid-spring through summer. It is a member of the Dayflower family - individual flowers often close up by afternoon on sunny days, and each flower only lasts a day or two. The camera didn't capture the color well here - flowers are actually a deeper blue-purple.
A close up of the flower reveals a possible source for the name "Spiderwort" - each anther is surrounded by several tiny filaments that might resemble a spider's web.
This is another member of the Spiderwort or Dayflower family that can be found growing in the park, the non-native Common Dayflower, Commelina communis. This one was found along the trail to the pond by the EDC, and with the two big petals reminded us of a little Mickey Mouse.
Virginia Knotweed, Polygonum virginianum, is common throughout the woods of Eagle Creek. When the seeds are ripe, they will explode away from the stem at the slightest touch, giving the plant its other common name of "Jumpseed."
By far the most noticeable late summer wildflower at Eagle Creek is White Snakeroot, Ageratina altissima. The clusters of white flowers create dense stands through much of the forest understory of the park. White Snakeroot contains the toxin tremetol and is poisonous when eaten, which probably explains its success in areas with high deer populations.
When European pioneers began settling the Midwest in the early 1800's, many of them became ill and even died from the mysterious "milk sickness." One of the most notable victims was the mother of Abraham Lincoln, Nancy Hanks Lincoln. It was not until the 1900's that the cause of milk sickness was officially determined: tremetol poisoning, from cattle that had grazed on white snakeroot plants (Although she never received official recognition, Dr. Anna Bixby probably discovered the cause several years earlier: Normally, cattle avoid the bitter leaves, but if they were being kept in woodland areas with few other sources of forage, they would eat it if they had no other choice.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Indian Pipes

Down at the end of the Pin Oak Trail I was excited to discover a group of strange pale plants that have emerged from the ground in the last few weeks. They look like they might be mushrooms, but these are actually flowering plants known as Indian Pipes, Monotropa uniflora. Indian Pipes are parasitic on a fungus that is in a mutualistic relationship with a tree. Since they get all of their energy from the fungus (who gets it from the tree) Indian Pipes do not need green chlorophyll to make sugar from sunlight, hence their pale white coloration. If you tilt the flower up slightly, you can see the yellow pollen, proving that these are indeed flowers, and not mushrooms.
For more detailed information on Indian Pipes and their weird and wonderful lifestyle, try these links:

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Mystery Tree...Revealed!

Remember the tree growing by the pond that had little pom pom flowers growing all along the stems in March? Now that it is mid-April, the flowers have developed into ruffly clusters of light green seeds, and the mystery tree has been identified as the Red or Slippery Elm, Ulmus rubra. The name "Red Elm" comes from the reddish brown color of the heartwood, and the name "Slippery Elm" comes from the slippery, mucus-like substance that can be ground from the inner bark. This mucilage can be made into a tea, or gruel for food, and is also said to be good for sore throats and irritable bowel syndrome. The fibrous part of the inner bark makes good twine or rope, and the wood is very shock resistant due to the interlocking grain pattern - good for making wagon wheels.
The Red Elm is less susceptible to the Dutch Elm Disease than its cousin, the American Elm (Ulmus americana), which has drastically declined in numbers in North America due to this introduced disease.
The seed of the Red Elm is called a samara - a fruit with flattened, papery, wing-like extensions. The "helicopter" seeds of maples and ash trees are also known as samaras.
This particular Red Elm tree has produced thousands and thousands of seeds this spring, while the Red Elms planted in my yard at home barely have any seeds. Like many trees, the Red Elm may not produce a heavy seed crop every year. Seed production takes a great deal of energy, and by "flooding the market" in a particular year, the tree prevents seed predator populations from building up to high enough levels to take advantage of the heavy seed crops. Even so, only a few of the seeds will ever survive to become mature trees.
The leaves of the Red Elm have a wonderful rough, sandpapery texture - we'll have to remember to check them out in May, after the spring "leaf out."
One mystery solved! But there's always another mystery, never fear: just across the trail another tree is flowering, and I...have absolutely no idea what it could be! Stay tuned....


All around the EDC right now you can see the Downy Serviceberry blooming (Amelanchier arborea). These small, slow-growing trees are native to Indiana and were planted in front of the building and in the backyard habitat to provide food and shelter for wildlife. Some varieties of Serviceberry grow as a shrub, rather than a tree. In some parts of the country, Serviceberry is also known as Shadbush, Shadblow, Juneberry, Sarvisberry, Sugarplum, and Saskatoon.
The flowers of the Serviceberry are short-lived, only a week or so, so enjoy them while you can! After the flowers are done, small red-purple fruits form - they look and taste somewhat like blueberries, and are a tasty snack for birds. Sometimes people use them to make jams and jellies as well, if they can manage to beat the birds to them! Many species of caterpillars feed on Serviceberry leaves, providing food for baby birds and insect-eaters, and making it a great native tree to plant for wildlife value. The timing of the appearance of Serviceberry flowers coincides with the "shad run," hence the name "Shadbush." (Shad are a type of fish that swim to their spawning grounds in the spring). The name "Serviceberry" is also related to the timing of the flowers: when pioneers saw the Serviceberry blooming, they knew that the ground had thawed enough to bury anyone who had died over the winter, and the beautiful flowers could also be used as decoration for the funeral service. The Native Americans used the straighter branches of the Serviceberry to make arrow shafts, and used the berries in combination with fat and dried meats to make pemmican. Serviceberry is a member of the rose family, along with blackberries, raspberries, apple trees, hawthorn, pears, and strawberries - you can see the resemblance in the shape of the flowers.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Fox Squirrels

The most commonly seen squirrel in Eagle Creek Park is the large, reddish-colored Fox Squirrel (Sciurus niger). Gray squirrels are native to Indiana as well, but there are no populations living in Eagle Creek, although they can be found on the campus of Butler University. The smaller Red Squirrels (also known as Piney Squirrels or Chickarees), barely larger than chipmunks, are present in low numbers in the park, and it is possible we have nocturnal Flying Squirrels as well, although their presence has not been officially confirmed.
Fox Squirrels will nest in hollow trees (or sometimes attics), but they also build nests of dead leaves and twigs high in the treetops. These leafy nests are known as dreys, and winter and early spring before the trees leaf out is the best time to see them. (Nests of large birds can be similar in size, but usually don't contain dead leaves.) Summer dreys may be small and loosely constructed, but winter dreys and dreys built by a mother squirrel for raising babies are sturdy, intricately woven, and lined with soft, insulating material. Fox Squirrels in Indiana can have at least two litters of babies per year: one in early spring, and a second in mid to late summer. The first litter is sometimes born as early as February, although the mother squirrels take a gamble with the chance of severe spring weather. Newborn squirrels are pink and hairless, but despite their lack of fluffy squirrel tail, they are still identifiable by their long front toenails.
A litter of baby fox squirrels was found in a gutter of a house a few days ago - the mother apparently nested in the gutter and the babies were washed out by heavy rains. The babies already have fur and have their eyes open, so they were probably born some time in February. Before I sent them to a wildlife rehabilitator, I got a video clip of the babies trying out some solid food for the first time. As you can see, they're still a little wobbly! The babies will be released back into the wild as soon as they are old enough.