Showing posts from 2017

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…

Northern Flickers

When I was a kid we had yellow-
shafted flickers on the East Coast and red-shafted flickers on the West Coast.  Now they've been lumped together as one species-the Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus).  Flickers are common around here and easy to identify-they are large tannish-brown woodpeckers with a prominent white rump patch that is easy to see when they are flying away from you.   Not as easy to see is the beautiful yellow coloration of the undersides of the tail and wing feathers.
One neat thing about them-you're as likely to see them on the ground as in a tree digging for ants and beetles with their slightly curved bill. They have barbed tongues that they use to snag the ants.


Buttonbush  (Cephalanthus occidentalis) is an awesome summertime shrub typically found in wetland areas.  This one was along the Cocheco River in Dover, NH.  

The flowers are like little pincushions, beautifully symmetrical spheres-dense clusters with protruding pistils.   They like water, they like shade.  The Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center calls them honey plants---I hadn't heard that term before, but according to the interweb a honey plant is one used by honey bees to make honey---makes sense.  I guess the implication is that they don't use the nectar from all flowers to make honey.

This is a great shrub to plant in your garden--they have interesting blooms, are native, attract a variety of pollinating insects, birds and bats, are easy to grow (mine has survived a bit of neglect) and will do well in a variety of soil types--not just waterlogged wetlands.

Brown and Black Bears

Some Interesting Observations about Brown (and Black) Bears
by Sue Pike July 11 2017  The York Weekly/Portsmouth Herald/Foster's Daily Democrat/Exeter Herald
One of the most remarkable sights I’ve seen in Alaska (my new backyard for a short time this summer) has been the large coastal brown bears grazing on the meadows of sedges and grasses that ring the tidal inlets.  They move around like cows - grazing!  I didn’t think bears did this.  These brown bears (Ursus arctos) are cousins to our local black bears (Ursus americanus).  Brown  bears are what we usually think of as grizzlies, but this isn’t always true.  A grizzly is a brown bear, but a brown bear isn’t always a grizzly.  According to the National Park Service “brown bears and grizzlies are the same species (Ursus arctos), but grizzly bears are currently considered to be a separate subspecies (Ursus arctos horribilis).  Brown bears are generally considered to be those of the species that have access to coastal food resourc…

Alaska's Muskeg

Visiting Alaska and its grassy bogs By Sue Pike  / York Weekly/Portsmouth Herald/ Foster's Daily/Exeter Herald
July 4 2017 I was just up in Alaska (my first time!) visiting the Alaska Whale Foundations’ Center for Coastal Conservation in Warm Springs. Warm Springs is in the heart of the Tongass National Forest. The Tongass is the largest national forest in the United States, a whopping 17 million acres, covering much of southeast Alaska - in particular the part surrounding the famous Inside Passage. Famous for everyone expect me I suppose.  I had never heard of the Inside Passage.  But now I understand why I should have - it is a wonderful place, rich in both human and natural history.  I was excited to learn about all the whale research going on in this remote part of the world, but I was just as excited to hike around avisit the bogs that dotted the mountains that loomed over the Center.  I wanted to see how similar they are to the bogs around he…

The beauty of elderflowers fades fast

The beauty of elderflowers fades fast  by Sue Pike / the York Weekly/Portsmouth Herald/ Fosters' Daily/ Exeter Herald
Jun 20, 2017 
As the last days of spring turn to summer, the lyrics to that Rodgers and Hammerstein song, “June is Bustin’ Out All Over,” keep running through my head. A song about how May was full of promises that she didn’t keep and how “the crowd of doubtin’ Thomases was predictin’ that the summer’d never come” ... but it finally has. So, as summer arrives and June winds down, I remember these lines “June is a love song, sweetly sung.” That’s how I feel about my neighborhood. Everything seems to be blooming all at once - the viburnum, the hawkweed and daisies and the grasses in the marsh and meadows. A wonderful native shrub, elderberry, is blooming in my backyard - growing along the edge of the salt marsh, nestled in amongst some beach rose and overly aggressive multiflora rose with wild grape twining along the top. In the past I’ve focused on elderberry in the…

Catbirds: sounds like a cat but doesn't look like a cat

Catbirds: sounds like a cat but doesn't look like a cat By Sue Pike /  / Foster's Daily / Portsmouth Herald
May 31, 2017
I was walking down my street, minding my own business, when a mid-sized gray bird flew into the bushes. Instead of disappearing into the shrubbery it hopped out onto a fairly prominent branch and watched me as I watched it. It didn’t fly away, it didn’t run for cover, it just watched me until I walked away up the street. This is typical behavior for gray catbirds - they are inquisitive, vocal birds who don’t seem to mind being around people. Most of my favorite birds are ones whose songs I can identify. The catbird, one of my favorites, is no exception to this rule. They are mimics (related to mockingbirds) - warbling out a jumbled mix of other bird songs along with their most identifiable song, a downward slurring mew - sounds very much like a cat, hence the name. The other common mimic we have around here is the mockingbird - …

The bunny is fine - just back away from the bunny

The bunny is fine - just back away from the bunnyBy Sue Pike / /Fosters Daily/ the Portsmouth Herald 
May 24, 2017 
What animal first comes to mind when most of us think of spring? It is often the rabbit. Because of their rapid reproductive rates, rabbits have long been associated with spring - at least in northern seasonal climates where springtime equals lots of baby animals. I visited the Center for Wildlife last week to take a look at some of their rabbit patients. This is the beginning of the mating season for our local rabbits; the rare New England cottontail, the Eastern cottontail and the snowshoe hare. As a result, the Center for Wildlife has been getting lots of phone calls from people who have found baby rabbits that appear to have been abandoned. The big take home message from Kristen Lamb, the executive director of the Center for Wildlife, was that usually these adorable, helpless little bunnies are not actually abandoned and that if you find…

Red-winged blackbirds are a sure sign of spring

I was down in New York visiting family this past weekend and had a nice preview of what to expect during the upcoming weeks of spring.  Spring! They are a little bit ahead of us down there-still no leaves on the trees but there was green grass in the lawns and dandelions and daffodils blooming.  Robins were fighting over territory in the park.  My aunt was bracing herself for her annual springtime battle with ants in her Manhattan apartment.  Like here I found mud, peepers and wood frogs calling at night, and one of my favorites, red-winged blackbirds. 
Red-winged blackbirds arrived at my neighborhood marsh almost a month ago.  Back before the last set of snow storms.  They are there still but are a bit subdued, perhaps because they’re still waiting for the ladies to arrive.  This is in contrast to further south.  Down in New York mating season is in full swing, the males were busy perching in the cattails, on telephone wires and stream-side shrubs, singing from any high place they c…

Taking rhododendrons' temperature

By Susan Pike

Rhododendrons make incredibly accurate living thermometers. When I went for a walk this morning, it felt cold, and I figured it was at least in the teens, but the rhododendron leaves were drooping, not curled. I realized I was being a baby, it had to be warmer than 25 degrees Fahrenheit. Rhododendron leaves respond to the cold, first by drooping and then by curling up - this is called thermonasty. When temperatures are above freezing, typical rhododendron leaves will be flat and oriented horizontally to the ground (presumably to collect as much sunlight as possible). As temperatures drop, the leaves follow suit. When temperatures fall below freezing, the leaves start to droop but remain flat. At 25 degrees F, the leaves start to curl and by 20 degrees F, they are as tightly curled as they can get. The most common native species of rhododendron in New England is great rosebay (Rhododendron maximum). That said, R. maximum is considered rare and classified as a threatened s…