An online resource based on the award-winning nature guide

Archive for September, 2018

Japanese Knotweed Flowering

9-12-18 Japanese bamboo_U1A9517Japanese Knotweed (Fallopia japonica) was introduced from Japan in the 1800’s as an ornamental; it was widely cultivated, escaped and is now well established throughout the Northeast. The World Conservation Union lists Japanese Knotweed among the top 100 worst invasive plants.  Its dense canopy and rapid spread through underground rhizomes make it a formidable threat to native plants and the animals that depend on them.

There are some redeeming qualities to this invasive plant, however. In addition to goldenrod and asters, Japanese Knotweed is a crucial source of late-season nectar and pollen. At this time of year, when Japanese Knotweed flowers, you can almost locate a stand using just your ears, the buzzing of honey bees gathering the last of their winter food supply from the thousands of tiny flowers is so loud.  A wide variety of  insects can be found on this member of the Buckwheat family eating leaves, foraging for nectar and pollen, and preying on the former. A recent survey revealed honey bees, bumble bees, ladybug beetles, flies, hornets, yellow jackets, stink bugs and tussock caterpillars, to name just a few.

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Fall Webworms

9-10-18 fall webworm nest_U1A9376

For several weeks white webs on the tips of branches have been apparent on many trees.  These silken tents are the work of the Fall Webworm (Hyphantria cunea), a moth most associated with its larval stage. Fall Webworm caterpillars construct a web over the end of a branch, enclosing leaves on which they feed.  As the hairy, white caterpillars grow, they enlarge the web to encompass more leaves, with tents sometimes extending two to three feet.

Often mistaken as the work of Eastern Tent Caterpillars, the tents of these two moths can be distinguished by the season they appear (ETC are active in the spring, Fall Webworms in the fall) as well as the location of the tents (ETC are usually in the crotches of trees, Fall Webworms at the tip of branches). As soon as the eggs hatch in early summer, the Fall Webworm larvae begin to spin small silk webs over the foliage of the deciduous trees on which they feed (over 90 species). By fall the tents are conspicuous. A look inside one  reveals caterpillars, dead partially-eaten leaves, and fecal droppings.

The larvae feed together inside the increasingly large web for roughly six weeks, at which point they often start feeding independently before pupating in the ground over the winter and emerging as adult white moths the following summer.

If your favorite tree has one or more Fall Webworm nests in it, there’s no cause for alarm. These caterpillars may defoliate a tree occasionally, but rarely kill it, and usually only build tents on a handful of branches, if that. The larvae have more than 50 natural predators and 36 parasites that help control them. Also bear in mind that Fall Webworms do not eat the buds of next year’s leaves and the leaves they are feeding on will soon to drop to the ground. Next year leaves will appear on the currently affected branches with no sign of last year’s damage.

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American Goldfinches Dining On Thistle Seeds

A. goldfinch and thistle seed_U1A8258

American Goldfinches are almost exclusively granivorous (consumers of seeds/grains).  Very few insects are consumed by these birds, even when feeding nestlings.  This is highly unusual in that spiders and insects are an essential part of 96% of N.A. terrestrial bird species. At the very least, most seed-eating birds feed their nestlings insects. (Brown-headed Cowbirds lay their eggs in other birds’ nests, leaving the raising of their young up to the host bird. It is rare that a cowbird chick will survive to leave an American Goldfinch nest, probably because it cannot thrive on a diet of virtually all seeds.)

The seeds of plants in the Composite family (sunflowers, thistles, dandelions, etc.) are the preferred food of goldfinches. Thistle seeds, being high in fat and protein, are high on the list. There appears to be a correlation between the late nesting period of goldfinches (late June or early July) and the flowering of thistles.  By the time American Goldfinch eggs have hatched, there is an ample supply of thistle seed for the nestlings.

Now is the time to keep an eye on the seedheads of thistles, dandelions and other composites for the acrobatic seed-plucking antics of American Goldfinches.

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Chicken of the Woods Fruiting

8-22-18 chicken of the woods_U1A5581

Even though Chicken of the Woods (Laetiporus sulphureus) is one of the few edible fungi that is easily identified, it’s always best to have an expert confirm its identity if you are collecting it for consumption.  The bright yellow and orange coloring of its bulky, fan-shaped shelves is distinctive. On the underside of these shelves you will find tiny pores, instead of gills, containing spores, making it a polypore mushroom.  You can find single clusters of this fungus growing on living and dead trees, as well as logs totally covered with them.

Chicken of the Woods gets its name from its taste and texture, which is much like that of chicken.  If you are foraging for a meal, you want to be sure to pick a young specimen, and eat the outermost portion of the shelves (for their tenderness).  There are several species of Laetiporus fungi; the ones growing on hardwood are preferable for eating.

Chicken of the Woods is saprotrophic – the fungus feeds on dead trees.  It is also parasitic, and kills living host trees by causing the wood to rot, and the tree to become hollow and easily topple over.

For those interested, here is a recipe that the Oregon Mycological Society recommends:

POLYPORE OMELET

3 Tablespoons butter

1 cup diced Chicken of the Woods

1/4 cup shredded Monterey Jack or cream cheese

2 or 3 shallots, diced

1 Tablespoon chopped fresh parsley

5 or 6 eggs

1/2 cup cream or half and half

Salt and pepper

Melt the butter in a heavy frying pan over low heat.

Beat the eggs and cream, add salt and pepper to taste; pour into the pan.

As the eggs start to cook, sprinkle the Chicken of the Woods, cheese, shallots and parsley over the top.

Cook for 1 to 2 minutes more until the egg mixture sets.

Fold the omelet over and remove from the heat; cover and let sit for 1 minute.

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How Webs Work

9-7-18 orb webs_U1A7834Spiders produce different types of silk for different purposes, including draglines, egg sacs, ballooning, building a web and wrapping prey.  Much of the silk spiders use to spin webs has a sticky consistency, in order to catch flying insects. It turns out that sticky silk isn’t the only reason spider webs are such efficient insect catchers.

According to scientists at Oxford University, not only is much of a spider’s web silk sticky, but it is coated with a glue that is electrically conductive.   This glue causes spider webs to reach out and grab all charged particles that fly into it, from pollen to grasshoppers.  Physics accounts for the web moving toward all airborne objects, whether they are positively or negatively charged.

According to Prof. Vollrath of Oxford University, electrical attraction also drags airborne pollutants (aerosols, pesticides, etc.) to the web.  For this reason, it’s been suggested that webs could be a valuable resource for environmental monitoring. (Thanks to Elizabeth Walker and Linda Fuerst for introducing me to this phenomenon.)

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