Sea Ice Insulates the Ocean Beneath It

By Sue Pike / Posted Jan 2, 2018 at 3:44 PMUpdated Jan 2, 2018 at 3:44 PM
We have had a cold past week -- temperatures hovering down around 0 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s amazing to me that birds and other animals can tolerate these conditions with such seeming equanimity. Ducks hang out in icy water. And while wild birds prefer open water to drink, they can get what they need from snow or any food that has some water content (like insects and wild fruits) - but I worry anyway and sporadically put out little dishes of water around the bird feeders, which probably aren’t much help since they freeze so quickly. Kids are skating on the local ponds and the stream out back is gurgling under a bubble-strewn cover of ice, icicles dangling down into the rushing water beneath. Salt water has a lower freezing point than fresh, but with these sub-zero temperatures it too is freezing over. Chunks of ice are accumulating in the harbor, pushed up against the dock and shore …

Chicken of the Woods, a fungi unlike any other

by Sue Pike
appeared week of August 28 2017 in the York Weekly, Portsmouth Herald, Foster's Daily and more

I was hiking up Mt Moosilauke last weekend. Toward the start, about 20 feet back from the trail, a Chicken of the Woods mushroom beckoned to us. The size of a stop sign, at least a couple pounds in weight, its bright yellow color glowing, it seemed to be asking us to come collect and eat it. We still had many miles to go so we decided to pick it up on the return. Coming back down we looked and looked but couldn’t find it, I think this loss is probably going to haunt me forever. It looked like the most perfect Chicken of the Woods fungi I have ever seen.
While I love the subtlety of nature, I also like things that are easy to identify - blue jays and cardinals, oak and maple trees, and edible mushrooms that cannot be mistaken for anything else. Chicken of the Woods fungi are one such mushroom. If you know a little bit about mushroom anatomy they really are unmistakable. Chicke…

Moon snails' mysterious egg cases

by Sue Pike
8/19/2017 The York Weekly/Portsmouth Herald/Fosters Daily Democrat and more

Of the many mysterious things you can find while beachcombing, one of the most difficult to understand is (I think) the egg collar of the moon snail. These beautifully-sculpted ribbons of sand show up on our beaches this time of year. A friend recently brought me one - it had washed up above the tide line, dried out and was starting to crumble. I knew it was a moon snail egg case but had to wonder how it was crafted; I certainly couldn’t have made such a thing. The story of how the female moon snail does this is spectacular - a nice example of the myriad of solutions nature has come up with to help with the task of reproduction. Moon snails are beautiful, round, moon-shaped snails (hence the name) that live just offshore of sandy beaches and on tidal sand and mudflats. They burrow in and through the sand in search of their prey. Pick up a clam or mussel shell, even a moon snail shell, if there is a…


by Sue Pike  August 7 2017  My first thought upon approaching the nesting platform was whether I should be worried about the angry parent ospreys circling over our heads and shrieking at us. I was accompanying the Essex County Greenbelt’s Director of Land Stewardship, David Rimmer, as he visited osprey nesting platforms along the Merrimac River. No one else in the boat seemed alarmed by the aggressive antics of these beautiful (but somewhat scary up-close) raptors so I decided not to worry. Osprey are something of a success story. In the early 1950s their population crashed as the use of pesticides (DDT in particular) became widespread. Along the New England coast over 90 percent of breeding pairs disappeared. After the 1972 DDT ban, populations rebounded and numbers have been building ever since.
Back in 2007 Dave saw the need for nesting platforms for the local osprey — tree removal and coastal devel…

Hop hornbeams have their own unique charm

bySue PIke
August 1 2017  The York Weekly/Portsmouth Herald/Foster's Daily/   etc

My neighbor has a beautiful hop hornbeam tree growing next to his driveway. Up until a couple years ago, I had never heard of this tree and spent some time trying to convince him it was an immature shagbark hickory (which it doesn’t resemble at all, so I’m not sure why I firmly believed this to be true). Then for a while I thought it was an elm (which is a closer fit than the shagbark) and finally, I really looked at the tree, saw the “hops” and figured out what it really was. The hop hornbeam (Ostrya virginiana) is a small tree which is commonly found in the understory of our hardwood forests. They are often described as unremarkable trees (even maligned as weed trees in managed forests). These are completely unfair descriptors. No tree is unremarkable; look close enough and all have their own unique charm. Hop hornbeams are particularly gorgeous trees. Their bark is grayand thin,…

Water Striders Hang Out on Water's Surface

by Sue Pike
July 25 2017  The York Weekly/Portsmouth Herald/Foster's Daily and online at  .....etc

What better summer pastime than sitting by a pond on a hot day? The frogs are languidly croaking, and the mosquitoes are not so terrible at the moment so just a few are buzzing by your ear. The surface of the water is a still and clear as glass, the surface broken only by the occasional minnow rising or a water strider skimming over the surface, tiny dimples where its feet touch the water. As a biology teacher, I love the water strider. Whenever the topic of water and why it is vital for life on Earth comes up, we talk about the amazing properties of water, one of which is that water molecules are sticky. Water molecules like to stick to other water molecules to the exclusion of other molecules, air for example. So, when you have an air-water interface the water molecules will form something akin to a skin (this is called surface tension, and, scientifically, is n…

Glossy Ibis

by Sue Pike  published weekly in these seacoast newspapers The York Weekly/Portsmouth Herald/Fosters Daily/Exeter Herald
Glossy ibis are a bird I never expect to see around here-they look like they should be hanging out in the tropics, wading through some Amazonian mudflats with their long spindly legs or swooping over a crocodile-infested watering hole in the African savanna.  They are close cousins to the more commonly recognized great blue herons and egrets.  There is something very “New England” about a great blue heron or a snowy egret regally perched on the edge of salt marsh.  People have weather vanes on their houses and lawn art that depict herons in this regal pose or flying overhead, necks tucked in, still stately in flight.  Ibis somehow don’t conjure up the same image.  However, since I first saw some drop down into a New England salt marsh, I was in love. 
Glossy ibis are tall, dark, slender, wading birds, and while they look different enough that it would be hard to co…