Sunday, August 31, 2014

August 31, 2014

As we move past the media-proclaimed end of summer, signs of the harvest season are all around the lakes.  This week I found the remnants of one the most bold and determined acts of obtaining nourishment that the forest offers. 

I noticed a hole the size of a basketball in the ground about six feet off a trail;  I went to determine the explanation.  A foot or two from the cavity was a honeycomb shaped segment of a hornet's nest, which told the story. 
Wood-fiber nest of the Yellow Jacket

Around the hole were more squashed pieces of the nest, and lining the hollow were layers of paper built to form the nest.

The calling card left by the perpetrator further cemented the conclusion.
Bear Scat

A Black Bear had discovered a yellow-jacket nest and decided to make that its lunch.  I can't image how tough a bear must be to submit itself to the torment of an entire, large hornet's nest just for a meal.  There could have easily been several hundred yellow jackets stinging the bear, especially its face and snout.  But it just toughed it out in order to get a protein filled meal of larvae, eggs, and even some wasps. 

The following day there were still a few determined yellow jackets investigating the ruins of their former home.
Searching the Remains

After another day they had all abandoned the site. 

I had noticed that there have been more yellow jacket wasps this year than usual - both in the wild and around our picnics!  The Golden Rod is in full bloom right now, and this appears to be a popular feeding plant for them.
Yellow Jackets on Goldenrod

I suppose they are fattening up too, even if only to feed the bears.  I count six wasps in the picture above - plus another small fly.  This perhaps explains the yellow jacket's color scheme, as they are well camouflaged in the golden rod. 

I would have previously called this a bee's nest, but this scene inspired me to read up a bit on bees, and I learned that yellow jackets, as well as paper wasps, are wasps.  (Hornets are a subset of wasps.)  Wasps are predators, with smooth and slender bodies, and the ability to sting repeatedly.  They will eat pollen, but more often eat sugary plants like overripe fruit, and will kill other insects by stinging them and then feeding their prey to their young in the nest. 

Bees on the other hand - honey bees and bumble bees for example - have fat, hairy bodies and legs which are efficient at collecting and storing pollen.  They also have barbed stingers which cause them to be pulled out of their bodies after stinging something. 

Also on this walk I saw several spider webs glistening in the morning dew, as the spiders are also enjoying the harvest season. 
Two-story Spider Web
They probably would have gone unnoticed if it weren't for the tiny water droplets that had condensed on the webs overnight.
Water Droplets on the Web Filaments

Farther along, beside a marsh, I saw hundreds of these webs.

Had I not seen a few close up I wouldn't have known what these white objects dotting the marsh are.

If you've been following the Osprey tracking site you know that two of our local osprey have left on their trip to South America.  But there is at least one still hanging around Lake Wicwas, and it is also fattening up on the local food supply.
Osprey with a Mid-Afternoon Meal

The shorter days and cool nights are wringing water out of the humid air over the lake in the mornings, and bringing the sunrise back to when it can yet again be observed at a decent hour. 
Morning Mist

Only a few weeks to the equinox now.
Sunrise over Lake Wicwas

Sunday, August 24, 2014

August 24, 2014

No matter how much I want it be summer for many more weeks, I just can't ignore the signs that it is late August and the season is starting to change around Lake Wicwas.  Some of the weak and wet-footed trees are already showing signs of fall, and the occasional colored leaf has parted from its tree and found its way onto the ground.  The Black Gum trees have quite a few bright red leaves on them as do some of the blueberry bushes along the shore.
Blueberry Bush Starting to Turn
Black Gum (Tupelo)

Another indication is the heavy load of pine cones, hanging off the upper branches of the White Pines like bananas.
Cones on a White Pine Tree

Take a look with a pair of binoculars up at the top of almost any tall, mature pine and you will probably see their fruit.  The Red Squirrels are already chattering at me as I walk near their personal trees loaded with their precious winter food supply.

On a morning kayak I saw three of our large birds:  the Great Blue Heron, the Osprey, and the Loons.  One of these birds, or perhaps a duck or a goose, had been preening itself as there were a few dozen fresh white feathers drifting in the morning sun on the surface of the lake. 

The osprey have been a more frequent visitor the past couple of weeks.  This evening we noticed there were a lot of fish rising to take insects from the surface of the lake, as it was very calm and smooth.  Soon we saw an osprey fly over and take multiple passes over the water, diving in several times, at least once coming out with a fish.  As the bird flew up out of the lake there was a flood of water running off it, leaving a trail on the lake surface as it flew away.  I took these pictures this morning as an Osprey sat in a pine tree waiting for an unsuspecting fish to swim under it.


The Osprey fattening up for their long voyage to their winter home in South America is just one more unmistakable hint of coming changes at Lake Wicwas.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

August 17, 2014

No sightings of eagles around Lake Wicwas this week, but far on the other end of the avian spectrum I found a tiny new bird:  a Winter Wren.  I have often heard the loud chattering of an unrecognized bird deep in a thicket as I walked by various areas of undergrowth (such as the Black Cherry patch) but could never see the source through the dense foliage.  This particular morning I stopped to look because they were cavorting about an area where an old pine tree had fallen down, crushing a lot of the small trees and thus opening up some sight lines.

I saw four or five tiny, nondescript brown birds hopping around the branches, probably picking small insects - ants, caterpillars, spiders - off the leaves and trunks.  They made frequent short chirps.  I watched motionless for several minutes, and eventually one or two flew close enough to take a fuzzy picture in the dim light, but sufficient to to take home to look up in the nature book.  One photo was good enough to see small white dots lining the edge of the wings, which identified it as a Winter Wren.

Winter Wren (Troglodytes hiemalis)

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology says Winter Wrens are ground feeders, often found in low shrubs and on fallen logs and trees, further confirming their identity.  I believe these are quite common, but based on their chosen habitat, I had not observed them previously.

Another one of our small birds, the Goldfinch, will likely be visiting soon, as we have a wild Bull Thistle blooming.

Bull Thislte (Cirsium vulgare)
Before long the goldfinch, and possibly the chick-a-dees, will be tearing into these flowers to rip out the tiny seeds.

Maturing Thistle Seeds - a Favorite of Goldfinch


No other animal is likely to touch them due to the incredibly sharp thorns on the branches, leaves, and even blossoms. This plant is also aptly known as a Spear Thistle.
 The blossoms are an excellent source of nectar, frequented by butterflies and bees.  It is also the national flower of Scotland!

The thistle is an ancient Celtic symbol of nobility of character, for contact with a thistle will yield certain punishment.  Here is a legend of how it became the symbol of Scotland, according to
John A. Duncan's "Scottish History Online":

The prickly purple thistle was adopted as the Emblem of Scotland during the rein of Alexander III (1249 -1286). Legend has it that an Army of King Haakon of Norway, intent on conquering the Scots landed at the Coast of Largs at night to surprise the sleeping Scottish Clansmen. In order to move more stealthily under the cover of darkness the Norsemen removed their footwear.

As they drew near to the Scots it wasn't the only thing hiding under the cover of darkness. For one of  Haakon's men unfortunately stood on one of these spiny little defenders and shrieked out in pain, alerting the Clansmen of the advancing Norsemen. Needless to say the Scots who won the day.

Enjoy your quest for birds around Lake Wicwas, large or small, with care - and sturdy shoes!

Sunday, August 10, 2014

August 10, 2014: Bald Eagle!

Our son with good eyes spotted an extremely large bird fly into a white pine along the shore line, and after some searching with binoculars we were able to find it, but it was too well hidden behind branches to be able to identify it;  we assumed it was an opsrey, or perhaps an eagle.  But when it took flight across the cove to another pine there was no doubt - this was a Bald Eagle. It perched in the absolute tallest tree along the cove - the cove some call The Emerald Cove, and others call Eagle Cove!  The lighting was difficult, with a bright sky and the sun behind it, but I managed to get a few pictures from pretty far away.

Bald Eagle

I'm no expert, but this bird seemed to be very large, and perhaps somewhat old, as it appeared a little ragged.

But what an impressive bird!

This was the best look I have gotten of an eagle on Lake Wicwas, and it just sat there enjoying its dominion for a long time - enough time to show a few other people where it was.  And there were no loons anywhere to be seen!

There were a couple of other interesting sights around Lake Wicwas, but they pale in comparison to this, and will just have to wait.  I hope you got to see the super moon tonight.  This picture was taken by JB during a moonlight ride on Lake Wicwas on Saturday night after the great Paddle Regatta!
Almost-full Moon on August 9th

Thursday, August 7, 2014

August 7, 2014 - Black Cherry

This year I followed the progression of a stand of small Black Cherry trees along one of my favorite routes.  These trees are five to seven feet fall and produce a good crop of cherries almost every year.  The fruit changes quickly, on almost a daily basis except for a month-long period of growth of the green fruit, making it a good study on plant progression.

This stand is growing in an old field, very common for black cherry trees - they need sun and are often found at the edges of fields and along roadsides.  They produce fruit after growing for about 10 years, becoming heavy only after 30 years of growth.  They can live up to 250 years, but usually stop producing fruit after 100 years. 

Their seeds have evolved to benefit from being consumed by animals; not only does this scatter seeds widely, but germination is actually improved by passing through the digestive tract of an animal, a process knows as scarification. One can clearly see cherry pits in bear scat at this time of year.

As with other pit-fruit trees, the Black Cherry has also evolved defense mechanisms.  The leaves, pits, and fruit all contain compounds that break down into cyanide.  The pits also contain enzymes that when ground (or say, chewed) do break down the compounds into cyanide.  The leaves similarly will produce cyanide if eaten by animals.  However, the fruit does not contain these enzymes!  Thus animals let the leaves grow, eat the fruit without chewing the pits, and spread the enhanced pits throughout the countryside to spread the species. 

In a bit of reversal, the Black Cherry has been introduced to Europe, where it is now considered an invasive species!  In New England there are caterpillars that can consume the leaves and perhaps keep the plant in control, where Europe may be missing this factor.

May 23

May 25

June 6

June 15

July 20

July 24
July 26

July 31

Once they get close to ripe it only takes a few days for the local fauna to completely clean them out.  In past years I have seen signs of bears eating the fruit, but this year they were consumed by birds and squirrels before the berries could even fully mature and attain the dark color that gives them their name.  Here is a picture from a prior year showing their dark purple-black color when fully ripe.

I have tried eating them, but they are almost all pit, and they don't really taste all that good.  A bear must have to eat an awful lot of them to get a full belly!

Sunday, August 3, 2014

August 3, 2014

The new loon chick continues to thrive on the abundant waters of Lake Wicwas - I send many thanks to the loon watchers who continue to send me such great pictures.  These photos were taken by Marge and Dave Thorpe, who just yesterday were recognized at the Lake Wicwas Association annual meeting for receiving the John F. Morten Award in recognition of their exemplary stewardship of the lake by the New Hampshire Lakes Association!  (There was also a great presentation on Osprey and their migration from New Hampshire to South America by Iain MacLeod, Executive Director of the Squam Lakes Natural Science Center. If you missed it you can read about the osprey journeys here: )

 5 Week Old Chick with Mom
Mom was proudly showing off her leg band again with a foot wag,

and the young protege had to show that he/she could do it too!

Another observer watched one the parents providing the chick some fishing lessons.  It came up with a small minnow, brought it over to the eager chick, who was then very dismayed to not have the fish popped in its beak, but rather to see mom drop it in the water for the chick to catch.  The chick watched in confusion as the minnow swam away, then dunked its head under the water a few times to look for it, and learned an important lesson:  if one wants to eat, one better work for it!

Although getting to be good size now,

 it is still a fuzzy, downy, young bird.

I saw another pair of water birds, Black Ducks, on the lake, but if this pair had ducklings, they were nowhere to be seen.  The drake was up on a rock, visibly preening itself, while the duck and any ducklings were hidden away in the reeds and bushes close by.

One other bird, a visitor from the ocean, was on the lake playing sentry:

Seagulls like to hang out on the buoys, watching for small fish to rise near the surface, and then grab them for lunch.  They are safe out there from competing with the Opsrey which tend to fish from trees overhanging the shoreline.

Along the shoreline I saw a small stand of Skullcaps blooming.
Common Skullcap (Scutellaria galericulata)

These are called Common Skullcap, Hooded Skullcap, and Marsh Skullcap, as their preffered habitat is marshes and wetlands.  It is considered an herb, and was used by Native Americans as a medicinal sedative, though its medical properties have not been formally documented.

Other summer flowers in bloom are the Meadowsweet, also a perennial herb, though not indigenous to America, and the Hedge Bindweed, a member of the Morning Glory family.
Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria)

Hedge Bindweed (Calystegia sepium)

A bit farther inland, I found this large Sulphur Shelf mushroom growing on a oak stump - it is well over a foot across.
Sulphur Shelf (Laetiporus sulphureus)

It is also called a Chicken Mushroom, as it is edible and is supposed to have a taste and texture like chicken, though I'm not about to try it - I'll stick with the blueberries!   Blueberries are still out there, though the Black Cherries have been totally cleaned out now.
Bare Stems of Black Cherries
Later this week I will post a review of the Black Cherries, as I followed their progression from flower to consumed fruit this year, so keep your eye out for a mid-week post.
Goodbye for now....