Monday, November 28, 2011

Berry Go Round #46

One-seeded burr cucumber (Sicyos angulatus L.) in New Jersey after the first hard freeze.
Welcome to the 46th Berry Go is the month of November when most of the plants die of exposure where I live (New Jersey, USA).  But not all of the plant dies of course.  If some part didn't live through the winter (dormant stem, root, fertilized embryo) the species would cease to exist. Well, on that note...

Luigi at the Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog has been pondering the origin of broom corn...and tracks down some historical, oddly-shaped grapes...

Mike at Nature Hermit has been contemplating the existence of native cucumbers and their seeds... 

The Phytophactor has been thinking about Spanish Moss as a commensalist...dashing our perceptions about Cycads...and attempting to explain a Lotus...

Roberta at Growing With Science shows us some cool Texas Mountain Laurel beans...

Emily at No Seeds, No Fruits, No Flowers introduces us to Dryopteris ludoviciana...and gives us a peek down under at Australia's ferns...

Jessica at Moss Plants stresses out some sperm...

Julie at Net Results provides a well-researched debunking of the buckthorn diarrhea myth...

Anybody Seen My Focus? checks out some lily beds on the Cahaba River, Alabama...and shows us some fall wildflowers and finds a blooming witchhazel in Georgia...
Happy November!

No gleaners yet

 The combine, late October.

Turns out the first swarm of grackles I saw back in September was a fluke.  I haven't seen another all month, despite their being plenty of leftover corn in the field.  I could easily collect a 55 gallon drum of full corn cobs in a few hours of picking. (I do pick up the occasional cob as supplemental sheep feed.)  Last year the megaflocks were a regular occurrence in November and December.  But then again we had a harvested sunflower field last year which is essentially a gigantic birdfeeder.  Corn isn't as choice to a blackbird, I'd imagine.  But it is to snow geese, which should be showing up en masse next month if last year is any guide.

Cucumber update

The burr cucumber on the garden fence stayed green way past the first frost (early October), all the way until the first hard freeze (early November), and got hit by a number of small frosts in between. The seeds have set and I looked closely at them.  They basically look like cucumber seeds but a little fuller and harder (and darker). There is no fleshy fruit, but the pods are covered with spines that actually stick into your hand (burrs I guess).  As far as I know the seed isn't edible.  I bit one and chewed a taste.  I spit it out.  I wonder what disperses such a weird seed.  Not easily searched for online.  I think there should be a huge list or database somewhere that tells you whether each plant is an annual, perrennial, biennial, etc. and how its seeds are dispersed.  Alas, I don't feel like making it!


Sunday, September 25, 2011

I got a trail camera...

...and now I know that one or more raccoons walked along the north bank of the Musconetcong at 3:54 and 4:12AM this morning!

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Spider time

Retro-looking photo of a Spined Micrathena (taken August 24, 2011, near the Musconetcong River, Mansfield Twp, NJ).
August is the month for getting spiderwebs stuck to your face. They seem to pop up all of the sudden between every shrub in the woods. Around here they mainly belong to the Spined Micrathena (Micrathena gracilis). A few weeks ago I also found this fancy-looking Arrowshaped Micrathena (Micrathena sagittata) down by the river. It's web was only two feet off the ground, apparently typical for this species (NWF insect book). Also from the book, both species live in open woods and "brushy areas" east of the Rockies.

The less common Arrowshaped Micrathena (taken August 24, 2011, near the Musconetcong River, Mansfield Twp, NJ).

Saturday, September 17, 2011

New Jersey cucumbers

Fresh and inedible. Fall seems to be the time for native wild cucumbers, of which there are two types in New Jersey according to Karl Anderson's list. They have recently become conspicuous, becoming greener as other vegetation begins to fade away. They are still blooming in mid-September, and still growing fast...high up into trees and up and over shrubs. The tendrils and leaves are really cucumber-like (it's in the same family, Cucurbitaceae) and are really picturesque. I somehow never came across these plants until living at my current house (northern NJ) where they are ubiquitous. The most common species is Bur Cucumber (Sicyos angulatus), but I also came across one specimen of Prickly Cucumber (Echinocystis lobata) down by the river.

Bur Cucumber growing up the wires of my garden fence, quite close to his domestic cousin.

Bur Cucumber Flowers.

Bur Cucumber Fruit (quite bur-like).
Bur Cucumber growing high up in a black walnut.

The rarer Prickly Cucumber. This is the only individual I've found so far, and I can't remember where exactly! Somewhere along the Musconetcong River in the WMA. It has longer petals, more finger-like leaves, and a neat-looking spiky oblong orb of a fruit. I have no idea what eats such bur-like and prickly cucumbers and disperses their seeds, but apparently not humans. 

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

First grackle megaflock

Mixed flock of blackbirds in late fall last year (2010), post-corn-harvest. This year's corn is still green.

I hereby record that the first megaflock* of common grackles this year arrived at my Warren County home in the pre-dusk hours of September 4th. They squeaked and creaked and occupied every ash, hickory, and sycamore branch along a half-kilometer stretch of the Musconetcong River. Then they departed, flying west-ish in the typical (and typically impressive) never-ending-river-of-birds. It would be fascinating to have a map of the wanderings of these bird-herds. Maybe ebird has this in their power?

They apparently wander this way all winter, and farther north than NJ, too. Here is a photo of another megaflock feeding on my lawn when I lived in Orange County, NY (taken December 2009).

Megaflock of grackles in Goshen, Orange County, NY, December 2009.

*I made up the word, but it fits...

Upstate dirt

This is neat. Look at the difference between the Hudson (top) and Raritan (left) rivers after Hurricane Irene. All that dirt from flooded creeks and farm fields in upstate NY and Vermont are engulfing Sandy Hook and NJ towns on Raritan Bay. I'm guessing this mingling of waters is always occurring (though to a lesser degree), but is just more visible now. NJ is more connected to the Hudson than I knew.  Probably lots of PCBs in that plume b/c of the GE dredging.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Eastern koala

I treed a woodchuck the other day along the Musconetcong River. I must have surprised him, or blocked access to his hole. Otherwise, I don't know why he would have gone up there. I could have just waited at the bottom of the trunk for him to get tired (if I really wanted a woodchuck)! After about 5 minutes of taking pictures of him, he made the bold move of descending the tree with me standing about 15 feet away. Right then, I could have run up an grabbed him (and gotten some nasty scratches, I think), but I squelched my animal instincts and let him disappear into the brush. By the way, I'm not the first to have this urge! In one of the stranger parts of Walden, Thoreau expresses the desire to grab and eat a woodchuck, raw.

A bold exit.

Thursday, August 4, 2011


A Carolina Chickadee, where it belongs - Ocean County, NJ. I heard a Carolina-type song in Warren County today - usually solid "Black-capped" country.

The birds are coming to me lately.

I haven't had a chance to do much birding around my property this summer, but now I keep seeing "good" species while poking around in the yard, going about my business. Post-breeding wanderers, I assume.

A blue-gray gnatcatcher feeding fledglings in the rose-of-sharon and on my garden fence (they move easily through 1-inch chicken wire holes, incidentally). A family of great-crested flycatchers making sallies out over the yard. A blue-winged warbler gleaning for caterpillars between an indifferent resident pair of bluebirds. 

But today was the best one. A Carolina chickadee singing from the old apple tree. That is, at least a chickadee was singing a Carolina-type song. Here in Warren County, NJ (Mansfield Twp), we are a good 30 miles or so from the boundary between northern Black-capped and southern Carolina chickadees. Complicating things is the fact that they hybridize, and that they can learn the "wrong" song near the hybridization zone. But, I grew up in Hunterdon County, 30 minutes to the south, and I've never heard a Carolina song there. So this was an interesting treat either way...even if it could be an evil omen of a changing climate?

Monday, July 25, 2011

Bird bug

Hummingbird moth (Hemaris thysbe) drinking nectar from a wild bergamot flower in my garden two days ago (Warren County, NJ).

This insect must have evolved as a "hummingbird mimic"...but why? Even the eye looks like a vertebrate eye, with a dark "pupil" in a brown "iris" (click on bottom picture). The white belly and dark back (known as "bicolored") is a common coloration among birds and other vertebrates. I think the clear patch in the wings makes them look more like the blur of a hummingbird wings. The whole package must be meant to give pause to potential bird-predatator, which presumably couldn't (or at least wouldn't) dine on a fellow bird.

Saturday, July 23, 2011


Possible "Big Dipper" fireflies (P. pyralis). Taken 8:15 PM, June 25 in Warren County, NJ. Corn may be a "biological desert" but it sure has a lot of fireflies over it, especially when it is young.

The katydids are just now starting to mean business. And of course the fireflies have been out for a while, but I've just started paying more attention to them lately.  

They begin the light show at around 7:30 PM and then (this is what I've somehow failed to notice until now) they tend to go away almost completely once it gets really dark. There also seems to be a succession of different species over the course of the twilight. The "short, upward, vertical-liners" start it out, flashing in dazzling numbers over grassy areas. Then the "J-makers" and other higher flying or tree-dwelling ones become more noticeable. The "short, upward, vertical-liner" I take to be the Pennsylvania Firefly (Photuris pennsylvanica). According to my NWF insect guide, these often fool Big Dipper Fireflies (P. pyralis) - which I take to be my "J-makers" - into landing near them by imitating their female flash pattern on the ground, and then eating them!

This link from Dr. Steven Carr at Memorial U. of Newfoundland, shows the flashing patterns of the various species.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Ox beetles and other monsters

An Ox Beetle. Taken July 7th in a grassland in Ocean Co., NJ.

This (if my ID books and have steered me right) is an ox beetle (Strategus anteus). I've seen a lot crawling around sandy bare areas of my Ocean County grassland lately. It is one of 5 ox beetles (Strategus sp.) in the US and the only one (at least the only common one) that lives in the Northeast. shows it going all the way up to Nantucket Island in Massachusetts. Females (which lack horns) lay eggs in rotting wood, where the larvae develop. Male horns probably serve as some sort of courtship or mate-getting ornament, which is amusing to picture!

 Another big beetle (Pasimachus sp., ground beetle family) common in my Ocean Co. grassland. This is a flightless beetle (shell is fused in the middle)! I've found shell remnants below Amercan Kestrel feeding perches. (Photo taken June 22.)

The sandy soils of south Jersey seem to support lots of really big insects. I've seen several other kinds of 1-2 inch beetles (including other dung beetles) crawling around between the grass tufts. Along with the abundance of over-sized grasshoppers, they seem to provide a main source of food for American kestrels (see here and here), and also possibly nighthawks which are common in the Pinelands and apparently eat a lot of beetles...this according to their BNA account and this wonderful Audubon print...

Thursday, July 7, 2011

A domestic situation

Here was a curious situation. A pair of bluebirds that inhabited a box about 10 yards away from my tree swallows were actively harassing them a few days ago. The tree swallows had young in the nest at the time, and the bluebirds were still laying eggs (3 at last count). It seemed like the bluebirds were a bit tougher than the swallows, but (being in the box) the swallows were able to hold their own. I have no idea what the indigo bunting was doing...I only noticed him after I downloaded the photos!

As an aside, I've noticed birds being testier in general these days. I'm guessing that it's due to territories "expanding" while fledglings are roaming around, but still being fed by their parents.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Tree swallow update

Dad, peeking out the front door. (Taken June 15th in Warren Co., NJ).

At least some of the baby tree swallows in my box (concieved during this copulation event) were still in the nest yesterday (July 4th). I could hear them chirping in there, sounding pretty much like the adults. I think I saw a fledgling or two (looked like drabber versions of adult) but didn't have a chance to confirm it. Anyway they are pretty much home free and should be fledging soon. (Nestling periods lasting longer than 14 days have to be pretty rare. I know Acadian flycatchers usually go about that long, and that they are on the long side among songbirds.) So that would be about one full month from copulation (May 30th), through hatching (June 19th), to fledging (about July 4th). A bit longer if you count nest building which I didn't actually observe (I must have been away during it).

Beetle-hawks 2

Elytra (shell) from a large Pasimachus ground beetle found with pellets near an American Kestrel feeding post.

This beetle shell was found near (a few feet away from) an American Kestrel feeding post in Lakehurst, Ocean Co., NJ (taken June 22nd). I moved it over for composition purposes, but I'm pretty sure the kestrel ate it (note the pellets with insect bits in them). Also it has a hole in it that I could picture a kestrel's beak tip going into. Below is (I think) the same beetle species found dead about 50 feet away from the post. According to, it's in the genus Pasimachus, in the family Carabidae - the ground beetles. This adds weight to my theory that summer kestrels are as much beetle-hawks as they are vole-hawks, or sparrow-hawks. And I guess they are grasshopper-hawks, too, as I found a large grasshopper wing nearby, as well. See previous post on beetle-hawks here.

Thanks to I know that these big monsters are in the genus Pasimachus (Family Carabidae, the ground beetles), and that it is a flightless species, having wing shells ("elytra") that are fused in the middle.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Kingbird on a wire

The second in my utterly pointless "birds on barbed wire" series. (See also "Dove on a wire".)

(Taken June 22 along a sand road in the Pine Barrens, Ocean Co., NJ)

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Grasshopper season

This monster was laying eggs (it seemed to be, anyway) in the middle of a sand road in Ocean Co., NJ, yesterday. I think it is Pardalophora phoenicoptera, the orange-winged grasshopper.

Grasshoppers have recently become more noticeable in the grasslands of south Jersey. I never thought of them as a seasonal animal before, but I guess most insects have their seasonality just like plants do. And insect timing, I suppose, often coincides with plant timing.

Adding to my theory that "grasshopper season" is upon us is this: I have found plenty of shed skins from aquatic insects before (exuviae, technically speaking), but yesterday was the first time I've found a shed grasshopper skin...completely intact too! If I remember correctly from the time I raised crickets (for an insect class), they usually eat the skin after they shed it. The one that molted the skin shown was still a juvenile at the time, identified by the still-short wings. I think the strings and stuff visible in the photo may be the linings of air tubes and other "internal" organs, the skin of which also gets molted.

Shed grasshopper skin. Taken yesterday in Lakehurst, Ocean Co., NJ.

Here is the large grasshopper from two more angles. Even his eyes look sandy...

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Mole crossing 2

Following up on my previous (and portentious) "mole crossing" post, I actually saw a mole crossing a paved road today! It was small and looked like an eastern mole as it didn't seem to have a starry nose. The road was over 100 feet wide! It skittered awkwardly forward, and looked nervous (if I can read mole body language as well as I think I can) a fish out of water. Same site as last time, so it may have been same kind that made the tunnel across the sand road. No time for a photo unfortunately.

Monday, June 20, 2011

A successful copulation...

The five eggs perhaps fertilized in part during this "copulation event" (described here) just hatched yesterday. When I peeked in the box, there were four of the typical tiny, wriggling, pink, weird-looking creatures, and one as-yet-unhatched white egg. Much more parental activity in and out of box now.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Goat's rue and other plants I've never heard of

There are about 1861 plant species native to New Jersey (Anderson 1997). So it isn't really surprising that I keep running into new ones. This one (Goat's Rue, a type of pea, photographed June 1 in Lakehurst, Ocean Co., NJ) was particularly strange in its "bicoloredness": yellow and pink. Mustard and ketchup. And it was providing food for an interesting little weevil. Weevils incidentally are the most species-rich family (~60,000) in the most species-rich order of insects (beetles). So I won't attempt to identify it. Anderson (1997) lists 48 native "peas" in NJ (family Fabaceae), not including introduced or extirpated species. Many more peas left to meet.

Another plant I met this spring that I'd never heard of is "Cut-leaved Toothwort." It is in the mustard family, and was growing along the Musconetcong River in Warren County. It seems to be fairly common, but I was excited because it wasn't listed as occuring in Warren County in the great NJ plant-atlas book by Mary Hough. "A discovery!" thought I.

Cut leaved toothwort, photographed April 17 in Musconetcong WMA in Warren County.

Lit Cited
Anderson, K. 1997. A checklist of the plants of New Jersey. Self published. Mount Holly, NJ.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Mole crossing

Mole directions for crossing sand road: Go straight past the grass clump. Take a sharp left at the tire track. Then swing right at the other grass clump.

(Taken June 4th in Ocean Co., NJ.)

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Striped eye

Thanks to the miracles of digital photography and cropping, I now know that painted turtles have...striped eyes. This strikes me as bizarre. Although I suppose "breaking up" the appearance of the eyes (or creating false "eyes" elsewhere) is a main function of camouflage in many species. Admittedly, having stripes on your eye does serve to make the face more cryptic. Especially since the face is often all that is showing on this mostly-aquatic species. (Taken today in Hamden Co., Massachusetts)

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Butterflies eating poo

Lovely tiger swallowtails feeding on fresh raccoon poo (taken a few years ago in Hunterdon Co., NJ). This behavior apparently allows butterflies to gain extra nitrogen and sodium which are needed for reproduction and are scarce in their typical sugary fare of flower nectar (Lederhouse et al. 1990).  These nutrients can also be found in rotting animals (scroll down on this link to see one eating a dead raccoon!) and also puddle margins. I've seen great clouds of them gathering on the mud of drying ponds - it can be quite spectacular!
Here is a red admiral drinking nutrient soup from the manure on an amputated lamb's tail (the tail had been "docked"). (Photo taken a week ago in Warren Co., NJ.)

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Bird sex

Bird sex must rank high on the list of strange animal reproductive positions (although see this video of slug sex and the series by Isabella Rossallini). It is simultaneously awkward and graceful. This weekend, a pair of not-modest tree swallows that live near my doorstep in Warren Co., NJ provided a good illustration of this.

1) First the male lands and plants his feet on the female's back.

2) Then, he grabs a mouthful of her head feathers for balance!
3) Then, he puts his wings up and performs an impossible twist of his tail to line up cloacas. 
This whole process lasts about 1-2 seconds, according to my camera's time stamp. The pair was observed mating several times over the course of a few days. It seemed to happen in the morning and evening more (too hot mid-day?), in short "frenzies" with the male going in for several tries each time. This timing coincided with their recent take-over of a birdhouse after some house sparrows vacated for unknown reasons. I could be wrong, but I think mating only occurs during egg-laying, as there has to be a relatively recent mating to produce a fertilized egg each day. I supposed that's why she always indulged the male, though she didn't always seem into it...

"That was awkward."

As an aside, this is the first time I've realized that male and female tree swallows are quite different looking, the female being much less shiny.