Monday, September 22, 2014

Phenology and Observations

 Gray Jay
Perisoreus canadensis
The Gray Jay is strictly an inhabitant of boggy areas of the boreal forest.  Though rare to uncommon across its entire range and almost always hard-to-find, it is a very distinctive bird. Their round heads, floppy tails, stout bills, and broad, rounded wings are all distinguishing characteristics. There are three subspecies.  Here in Wisconsin and the rest of the Gray Jay's Eastern range is the nominate, Taiga (P. c. canadensis) subspecies, which has a dark gray back, a light gray belly, white cheeks and forehead, and a black partial hood on the back of its head. The Rocky Mountain (P. c. capitalis) subspecies is much lighter overall, with a lighter gray back, tail, and wings and much less dark color on its head.  The Pacific Northwest (P. c. obscurus) subspecies, however, is a very striking bird with an extensive brown hood, a brown back with white streaks, and limited white on the face or elsewhere on the body.  In all of these subspecies, the juvenile is generally an overall dark gray with a paler "cheek" and "mustache."
The Gray Jay's call is an odd and often very noisy assemblage of squawks, howls, chatters, and other odds and ends, and is often the best way to find it.  They often travel in flocks from three to ten birds, so when you find one there are likely others around.
Jays, magpies, crows, and ravens--collectively known as Corvids--are a group of very intelligent birds which all store food in summer and fall in preparation for the winter ahead. (This behavior is known as caching.) Most Corvids store their food on or in the ground for later use. But the Gray Jay lives in the boreal forest. Imagine trying to retrieve a cache from underneath five feet of snow when you measure a fifth of that height! 

Gray Jays have evolved an ingenious way around this, though.  Their solution lies in their saliva, which during peak caching season turns to the consistency of glue. They use this to their advantage by gluing bits of food to tree branches in the summer and fall, then coming back to them later in the winter when food is scarce. Occasionally, one can find some of these caches on a winter walk into a bog.

Gray Jays are hard-to-find but present in all of the bogs across campus.  Look and listen for them around Inkpot and Dollar Lakes, the bog near the LRC, and the bog behind the TC.

Photograph: adult Gray Jay photographed in the bog behind the Tech Center.
Artwork clockwise from left: Taiga subspecies, Rocky Mountain subspecies, Pacific Northwest subspecies, and juvenile.  © Nate Martineau 2014.
Click on photos for higher resolution.

Pygmy Shrew
Sorex hoyi
The Pygmy Shrew is widespread anywhere there is an abundance of coniferous trees.  Grassy openings, bogs, and forest floors, among others, are all suitable habitat for the species so long as conifer trees are abundant there.  Despite its adaptable nature and large range, however, the Pygmy Shrew is by no means a common animal.  Mostly nocturnal, it is usually very hard to see and, in fact, it is so rare--and even more rarely seen--that scientists still have yet to learn about some of the most basic aspects of the species' life history and behavior in the wild.
A tiny animal, the Pygmy Shrew measures a total of less than 2.5 inches long including the tail.  Just like other shrews, it uses the sensitive tip of its long snout to root around the soil for worms and other invertebrates.  Living for just one year, one female will produce up to three litters of Despite the fact that some shrews are impossible to identify to species without a microscopic look at the incisor teet
h, the Pygmy Shrew is a relatively easy species to identify.

First and foremost in its identification is its miniscule size. In addition, the overall light brownish-gray color of its
 upperparts, the silvery underparts, and the white feet make for a distinctive color combination.  The tail is about 40%
as long as the body, another distinctive characteristic.
One of the few things known about the Pygmy Shrew concerns its diet--one of the most varied diets of any subterranean mammal.  The Pygmy Shrew eats an astounding variety of food--it will literally eat almost anything it finds in its path.  It eats beetles, crickets, grasshoppers, spiders, grubs, worms, small amphibians, caterpillars, young snakes, bird and turtle eggs, subterranean fungi, slugs, snails, ants, termites, centipedes, seeds, plant roots, small fruits and nuts, baby birds fallen out of the nest, young tree bark, bulbs, and almost anything else imaginable!
Pygmy Shrews can be seen at dawn and dusk and at night around the trash cans across the student path from Donahue House--a testament to the way animals can often turn up in the most unexpected places.

Field notes from the afternoon of the 20th.  Sketched in the field, finished drawings and notes immediately afterwards. 
Click for higher resolution.

Lobaria pulmonaria
Smooth Lungwort
Lobaria quercizans
The Lungworts are a family of large, attractive foliose lichens widespread across the Holarctic region.  The Northwoods of Wisconsin harbors two species: Lungwort (Lobaria pulmonaria) and Smooth Lungwort (L. quercizans).  Both are large, pollution-sensitive lichens found deep within pristine old-growth deciduous forests and neither is ever found in abundance.  Finding a population of Lobaria is always an indication of a rich, unpolluted, and often very old forest.
L. pulmonaria--the more common of the two species--can grow in a variety of moist, shaded sites in mature forests, including tree bark, mossy rocks, and downed wood.  When moist, this species lights up the shaded forest understory with lustrous shades of yellow and green. 
L. quercizans, on the other hand, is not nearly so easy to find--Smooth Lungwort is quite rare and can only be found growing more than 20 feet up, on the partially shaded bark of mature Sugar Maple and Basswood trees, on south-facing slopes.
Smooth Lungwort, though, more than makes up for its rarity with its looks--as if the luminous colors of L. pulmonaria weren't enough, this species adds to it with extra adornment: big, reddish-brown apothecia contrast with the rest of the lichen's
bright green hues, adding a touch of brilliant artistry to the maple and basswood trunks twenty feet above.  Occasionally, one gets to see this species up close after one its host trees has fallen down--a real treat:
Not only is Lobaria beautiful, but it has also been known for centuries to prevent numerous ailments such as tuberculosis and eczema. 
More recently, however, another, an even more exciting discovery was made, this time involving the family's chemical makeup. It turns out thatLobaria's main chemical product--Stictic Acid--has an apoptotic effect on cells. In other words, it makes cells self-destruct! 
Lobaria lichens are perhaps the most important source of Stictic Acid, which is currently the subject of much medical research and, many believe, has the potential to save countless lives from the otherwise deadly effects of heretofore "untreatable" types of cancer.
We at Conserve School are lucky to have both of these species present on campus in relative abundance.  Lungwort can be found in large concentrations in the hemlock forest along the Black Trail, in the forest around Lake Elaine, along the Blue Trail between Inkpot and Dollar Lakes, and along the more forested parts of the Green Trail. Smooth Lungwort is harder to find but also present on campus in relatively high numbers.  The best places to find Smooth Lungwort are around Bear Head 46 and in the deciduous forests around Inkpot Lake.  The surprisingly large concentrations of these two species here indicate how extremely high-quality the ecosystems on Conserve School property are.

First photo: a vibrant Lungwort found at O Kun de Kun Falls.
Middle photo: a huge Smooth Lungwort growing on the bark of a fallen old-growth Basswood in Sylvania.  Since it was found in winter, this specimen does not display the bright colors that it will in spring.
Last photo: an enormous Lungwort specimen found just off of the Blue Trail.
Click on photos for higher resolution.

Yellow Birch
Betula alleghaniensis
A North American endemic, the Yellow Birch ranges throughout much of the Midwest, New England, and the Appalachians. Throughout the southern part of its range it is very rare, and throughout most of the rest of its range it is considered uncommon. In our area, however, Yellow Birch can be abundant—the species’ highest population densities lie in Maine and in the western portion of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and adjacent Wisconsin.  Its habitat preferences are identical to those of the Eastern Hemlock, and the two are almost always found growing together.  They both prefer moist, well-drained soils in hilly areas underlain with sand and glacial till or along gravelly, well-drained stream banks.
Yellow Birch is known for the wintergreen-like flavor of its sap, which can be tapped and boiled down to syrup.  Yellow Birch possesses a heavy, strong wood with a close grain and even texture that is often used in furniture, flooring, paneling, and especially plywood and decorative woodwork.  This wood is quite unlike that of almost any other birch species, which are used mainly as pulpwood for papermaking and are good for hardly anything else due to their weak wood and susceptibility to rot and insects.
Yellow Birch is an unusual member of its family (Betulaceae, Birches): it lives longer, grows more slowly, reaches much taller heights, and attains far greater size than any other birch, particularly in the Northwoods.  Sylvania Wilderness, in fact, contains all of the world’s 10 largest Yellow Birches.  In Sylvania, Yellow Birches can reach astounding ages of 350-400 years old. The largest Yellow Birches there reach towering heights of 100 feet or more, and can attain enormous girths of three and occasionally even four feet!
Yellow Birch is relatively straightforward to identify: the shiny, shaggy bronze bark peels off in thin curls on younger trees, and forms equally distinctive plates on mature trees (see photo). The twigs and buds smell and taste of wintergreen. The leaves are alternate, toothed, oblong, and huge—3-4 inches long.  Finally, the Yellow Birch gets far taller, older, and larger than any other birch.

A huge Yellow Birch found by a group of students in Sylvania on May 02.  This tree's diameter was over 3.5 feet!
Click on the photo to view at a higher resolution.

Eastern Leatherwood
Dirca palustrus
Leatherwood is generally an extremely widespread, but rare to uncommon tree of temperate eastern North America. It is widespread because its preferred habitats--wetland margins and low-lying woodlands--are abundant across much of eastern North America. It is rare to uncommon because it grows extremely slowly and produces relatively few seeds per plant. However, it can be common in certain locations in northern New England and Michigan's Upper Peninsula and adjacent Wisconsin.
Leatherwood is quite easy to identify--even in the winter.  Just look for the "Bonsai" appearance and its twigs which usually possess an attractive golden hue.  In early spring, each Leatherwood puts out a delicate bloom of dangling clusters of three finely sculpted, pale-yellow flowers which provide insect pollinators with one of their first sources of
nectar and pollen.  The species' leaf-out is one of the earliest of any native tree or shrub, sending out slightly elliptical, smooth-edged, pale-green, alternate leaves.  In fall, Leatherwood's leaves turn the same color as its spring flowers, and as the oblong fleshy fruits ripen they turn from green to yellow to red to white and fall off onto the forest floor.
Look for Leatherwood on Inner Campus, where dozens were transplanted years ago to be saved from road and trail construction elsewhere on Conserve School property.  If you want to see "wild" Leatherwood, the deciduous woodlands near Big Bateau Lake and the  are a great place to find them.

The flower of a Leatherwood growing on inner campus.

Map of my Phenology Spot

Tallest Tree
68 feet tall
Quaking Aspen in SE corner

Two Photos
Facing North

Facing East

Click on photos to view at a higher resolution.

Pitted Beard Lichen
Usnea cavernosa
Pitted Beard Lichen has a patchy distribution within the well-lit boreal forests of the Northwoods.  No one really knows why the species' distribution is so sporadic, since it has been found growing in a very wide variety of habitats from Black Spruce in cool, moist bogs to hot and dry Jack Pine barrens.  Where it is found, though, it is often extremely abundant and drapes entire trees with its pale green growth.
Pitted Beard Lichen can be identified by its characteristic growth form: it drapes from trees with pale green to pale yellow branches that range from 4 inches to a foot and a half in length.  The branches are unique from any other similar lichens in the Northwoods because they are long and wavy with no joints anywhere, and because of the namesake pits that form at the bases of the branches.
This and other Usnea lichens contain Usnic Acid, an extremely useful compound with many uses.  Among its many uses, it is used as a potent antibiotic, antiviral, and antiprotozoal. It has numerous interesting properties, including ultraviolet absorption and inhibition of cell division.  It is commonly used as a preservative, and its genes have been used in several GMO food crops for its insect-repellent properties.
Pitted Beard Lichen is useful not only to humans, but to animals as well.  Mice collect it in autumn and eat from stores of it throughout the winter.  When it falls from trees, it decomposes and releases prolific amounts of nitrogen into the soil: it's the forest's fertilizer.  Interestingly, the range of this species coincides perfectly with the northern segment of the range of a certain warbler, the Northern Parula. This is because the Northern Parula depends almost entirely on this lichen to build its nest out of--it just takes the dangling strands and weaves them together into a pouch.  This explains the parula's breeding range as well: it is widespread in the Southeast and the Northwoods, but is completely absent in between because in the southeast there is another lichen, Old Man's Beard, that is analogous to Pitted Beard Lichen.  In between the southeast and the Northwoods, nothing like it grows and so they have no material with which to build their nests.
There is only one place on campus that I have found Pitted Beard Lichen near the ground: the eastern and northern edges of the big bog near the TC, where, despite the limited area where they can be found, they are abundant. Elsewhere on campus it can be found high in the canopies of Eastern Hemlock, White and Red Pine, and Tamarack.

A spruce near the TC draped in Pitted Beard Lichen.

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