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Archive for June, 2006

Red in Tooth and Claw and Tail

Monday, June 26th, 2006

As I was leaving the student center, a big ol red-tailed hawk flew past the door. It wasn’t but four feet from the ground, and it had a pigeon in its talons. I followed it across the street, where it perched in a tree with a single leg holding down the pigeon, which was still flapping its wings. I was so close and had such an awesome view! The neighborhood mockingbirds were not happy to see it there – they perched at a safe remove of five feet or so, screamed at it, and made occasional sallies to peck at its tailfeathers. The hawk, unperturbed, continued to hold down the pigeon and look commandingly about. An MIT kid came up, complete with sheet of paper scrawled with circuit diagrams…

Kid: Is that hawk killing that bird?
Desi: Yeah, and those mockingbirds are pissed at it.
K: Why would it kill a nice bird like that?
D: (jovially, not 100% sure Kid’s joking) Hunger, I reckon.
K: One of those things went after an airplane of ours last week.
D: Oh, like a model?
K: Yeah, it was this autonomous thing we built.


Eventually the hawk got tired (I assume) of the mockingbirds, and flew on down the street, pigeon now barely flapping at all.

Alewife Tick-Patch

Saturday, June 17th, 2006

I decided to identify all the woody shrubs, trees and vines between the nasty stream and the tick-grass.

  • eastern cottonwood (Populus deltoides) (salicaceae)
  • red-osier dogwood (Cornus stolonifera) (cornaceae)
  • American elm (Ulmus americana) (ulmaceae) – these got as high as 30′ or so. Some looked pretty bedraggled, but some seemed reasonably healthy.
  • silver maple (Acer saccharinum) (aceraceae)
  • blackberry (Rubus sp.) (rosaceae)
  • a hickory (Carya sp.) (juglandaceae) – I think this might have been shagbark, but it was growing in the understory – under one of the elms – and wasn’t big enough to tell by the bark. So with the buds not yet developed, I couldn’t be sure.
  • multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora) (rosaceae)
  • ashleaf maple (Acer negundo) (aceraceae)
  • fire cherry (Prunus pennsylvanica) (rosaceae)
  • rugosa rose (Rosa rugosa) (rosaceae)
  • Northern catalpa (Catalpa bignoniodes) (bignoniaceae) – nice big handsome flowers
  • buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) (rubiaceae) – is the genus name supposed to suggest a head-shaped (i.e. spherical) flower?
  • common buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica) (rhamnaceae)
  • green ash (Fraxinus pennsylvanica) (oleaceae) – olive family always seems weird to me, because I’ve never seen an olive plant (tree?)
  • smooth alder (Alnus serrulata) (corylaceae) – Last year I thought this was a speckled alder. It is reasonably speckled, but the cones were stiffly sticking out in all directions – not drooping. Also, the buds, such as they were, were brown, not black.
  • red maple (Acer rubrum) (aceraceae)

This is, I’m happy to say, everything from a stretch of over 100 feet. I ended on a plant I could not recognize, because when I walked back to my backpack I noticed that ticks had penetrated my safety perimeter. I didn’t freak out this time, but I did have to do a pretty thorough decontamination before I was comfortable putting my backpack back on. The first little bastard climbed up onto my helmet, which was resting on my bike. I suspect a strap may have been dangling into the grass. The second just appeared on my wildflower guide. I wonder if these are actually different kinds, or just different instars or whatever. The first is what I’d call a “deer tick” and the second’s what I’d call a “dog tick”.
other tick


Popular non-woody plants growing in here included teasel, common milkweed, tansy, phragmytes, various grasses. I saw my first yellow warbler.

IMPORTANT UPDATE: I also heard a warbling vireo, I’m pretty sure. And a knowledgeable friend tells me that both the ticks are dog ticks, Dermacentor variabilis – the first is female and the second male. Deer ticks also have a bib cape thingy, but it’s black and their bodies are red.

Eagle Island and the Finger Lakes

Monday, June 12th, 2006

I went out to western NY again. On Eagle Island, nesting in a corner above a garage door, my first Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe, tyrannidae). She preferred to sit facing into the corner, with her tail (it reminded me of a mockingbird’s in its square stiffness and its up-and-down waggling) hanging out. When I’d come out the back door, or the garage door, she’d fly off and perch on a chopping block 20 feet or so away. We’d thought the nest was abandoned when I was there four weeks ago, so you’d think the eggs would be hatching soon. It was chilly, so maybe she was brooding actual chicks, I guess, but I don’t know if they do that. I wish I’d photographed the nest, but I didn’t want to freak her out even more. It looked a lot like this wood-pewee nest, down to the speckles of mud on the walls (this bird carries mud in her tiny beak for nest-cement, and loses plenty on the way).

Driving home, saw a bird perched in a tree along the side of the road – all bright scarlet, with black wings. I’m pretty sure this was a Scarlet Tanager (Piranga olivacea, thraupidae). I’d heard them singing in the general neighborhood.

At the memorial service, on Seneca Lake, I heard and saw a Chipping Sparrow (Spizella passerina, emberizidae). The fields there were alive with Barn Swallows (Hirundo rustica, hirundinidae). This I think I’d seen before, at the Eagle Island docks, but haven’t been able to be sure. It’s a gorgeous and graceful bird, with coloring that reminded me of a bluebird’s. Europeans refer to their less-attractive variant of this species simply as “swallow”, so this helped me visualize my Monty Python properly. It is of course absurd to suggest that this bird could carry a coconut. I also heard an Eastern Wood-Pewee hollerin’.

Along the shore, the grass was full of storksbill!

I improved the car ride with bird song. When I did the quiz section at the end, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I’m somewhere in the neighborhood of 80% recognition of those 95 songs.

Another Long Ride to Middlesex Fells

Saturday, June 3rd, 2006

On Monday. I saw the first one within a couple dozen feet of the trailhead:

  • pink lady’s slipper (Cypripedium acaule) (orchid family) – Lady’s slipper is another one I remember my mother showing me, though I think perhaps not this kind. I saw this within 50 feet or so of the trailhead. It apparently enjoys highly acidic soils, often growing under pines and oaks. I saw dozens of these today, and they were all in these circumstances – white pines and red/black oaks, mainly. The understory had a bunch of hickory, shagbark I believe, and sassafras. It made me happy for some reason to see something like that possibly succeeding oak/pine in a Massachusetts badland.
  • yellow stargrass (Hypoxis hirsuta) (amaryllis family) – I think wikipedia has this in the liliaceae. Not that personable a plant. Growing in the middle of a trail, in only one place at all.
  • greenbriar (Smilax rotundifolia) (lily family) – Smilax is the only shrubby lilial (if that word’s forgivable) in the region. There are a lot of them, and I only keyed this out in Newcomb’s, not the Peterson Trees & Shrubs I just got. It was quite common.
  • blue toadflax (Linaria canadensis) (figwort family) – I saw this last year, but I think only ever next to a lamppost on Mass. Ave. It was happy in the sandy, sunny land up by the tower on the skyline trail.
  • wild peppergrass (Lepidium verginicum) (mustard family)
  • maple-leaved viburnum (Viburnum acerifolium) (honeysuckle family) – also called “dockmackie”. This was very common.

And at the Mystic River Reservation on the way home:

  • lesser stichwort (Stellaria graminea) (pink family) – This is essentially another chickweed, with big flowers.
  • Guelder-rose (Viburnum opulus) (honeysuckle family) – This is a lot like cranberry viburnum, but European.