Archive for the ‘Nature’ Category

White-throated Sparrow?

Sunday, May 6th, 2007

Among the usual Somerville and Cambridge birds I’ve been hearing an occasional song which sounds like a white-throated sparrow’s “Poor Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody”. However, it’s been coming across as thin and reedy compared with the recordings I have, and lacking syllables in Peabody, such that it sounds like “Poor Sam Peee Peee Peee”.

I didn’t really think that it was likely a white-throated sparrow, since I hadn’t read of them being city birds at all. But today, I saw a sparrow in the back yard which definitely wasn’t a house sparrow. It had three white stripes on its head, and a distinctly white throat. It was bigger than a house sparrow. I didn’t see the yellow eyebrows that white-throated sparrows should have, but maybe I just wasn’t looking closely enough…

Middlesex Fells

Sunday, May 6th, 2007

Yesterday I went out to the Fells for the first time this year.

  • Lesser Celandine (Ranunculus ficaria) (buttercup family) – Hooray! I’ve been on the lookout for this character for a couple of years now, since noticing that celandine is one of the most popular weeds in the Boston area. It was the first thing I saw at the parking lot. Lesser celandine isn’t even in the same family as celandine, which is in the poppy family, nor does it look remotely alike apart from having yellow petals. The shiny petals are kind of a tell that it’s buttercuppy, but I’m so used to buttercups having five petals that it wouldn’t have occurred to me to group this with Ranunculus. Wikipedia has an anecdote, involving Wordworth’s gravestone, of mistaken identity with these two.
  • Downy Juneberry (Amelanchier arborea) (rose family) – This is the shadbush. I guess if I were old-time enough I’d reckon the shad to be spawning about now. The leaves are really quite spectacularly downy. I think last year I probably must have seen this, but I wasn’t as turned on to shrubs then, and I’d have called it some crazy cherry.
  • Some Crazy Cherries (Prunus sp.) (rose family) – The main cherry in the Fells is the fire cherry. But I saw two others. One type had large pink flowers – my best guess is that they were sour cherry, escaped from some farm in olden times. Another had white flowers like the fire cherry, but about half the size, and the bark of the twigs was gray rather than reddish. This is a tough time for identifying shrubs; my Newcomb’s guide doesn’t get into much detail with them, and my beloved Peterson’s guide to trees and shrubs doesn’t even mention flowers. The latter keys on vegetative characteristics, but since the leaves are so small and wonky now, and the buds are broken open, I pretty much can’t use it for another couple of weeks.
  • Sessile-Leaved Bellwort (Uvularia sessifolia) (lily family) – Also, strangely, known as wild oats. This was growing in amongst some of the Canada mayflower which carpets the forest pretty much floor throughout the Fells. An unassuming flower, though the foliage is lustrous and beautiful when you look at it.

I also took special note of the following, which I saw last year around this time.

  • Small-Flowered Crowfoot (Ranunculus abortivus) (buttercup family) – I saw this all over the muddy pathsides on Eagle Island last spring. In the fells, it was growing in drier conditions, among common violets and garlic mustard. They were underneath an elm with distinctly slippery inner bark, and new leaves which were downy-hairy above and beneath. Peterson’s tree and shrub guide fails me here too, since it expects full-grown leaves, which it says are sandpapery above. But I think it was probably a slippery elm.
  • Ovate-Leaved Violet (Viola fimbriatula) (violet family) – I just like this. It’s got a nice, deep purple to it. There was a small section of path which was carpeted with them on either side. Latin fimbriae are fibers, shreds, fringe, so I guess the species name is mean to refer to the downiness of the leaves?

I also heard a brown thrasher and goldfinches (with whom I’m becoming quite taken), and saw my first red-winged blackbird of the season.

Spring has sprung

Monday, April 9th, 2007

And as the sap riseth in the humble vegetables, so riseth it in Desultor. Mutatis mutandis.

Crocuses have been around for a couple of weeks. Towards the beginning of last week I saw my first daffodils. Towards the end, those damned blue flowers which I still can’t identify. I speak in this post of flowers, not merely foliage.

And now this week, the Kendall railroad weedpatch has blooms: woodsorrel (surprisingly early to me), some sort of chickweed (probably “common” but I was rushed and didn’t look closely), some crazy whiteflowered mustard with purpley foliage (flowers are about the size of shepherd’s purse; I think the foliage is pretty much entire), and storksbill!

HOORAY! For Desultor, it’s out of the gardens and into the sidewalk cracks! The weedpatches! The railroad tracks! The tickpatch (mater memoriae)! The swamps!

Bold, myrmecophagous catbird

Monday, July 17th, 2006

I saw a catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) in Kendall Square. He was on the ground behind the T stop, foraging for ants. I stopped about five feet from him and said “catbird!”. He noticed me but didn’t fly anywhere – indeed, rambled on up to within a foot or two of my feet. He was mainly pecking at the ants in the open, but also darted over to some dead leaves to upturn them with his beak. When an ant fled the leafpile, he chased it down and ate it. I’m not sure why he bothered with this, since there were a lot of ants right at his feet, but maybe he liked having the distance from me to eat.

This is interesting to me because I’ve never seen a catbird in the city at all. I think of them as birds of suburban shrublands and woods. Nor have I ever seen one so bold!

Eagle Island, July 5, 2006

Saturday, July 8th, 2006
  • agrimony (Agrimonia gryposepala) (rose family) – I’ve always liked this one’s name. Its leaves were sticky beneath and had a pleasant smell. I guess I should take the name to mean it has hook-nosed or, more generally, curved sepals, but I didn’t look carefully.
  • rough bedstraw (Galium asprellum) (madder family) – This and the following were growing right near each other and the agrimony, along the wood border at the back of the big lawn by the public dock. I’m pretty sure I’d seen this before, but I hadn’t quite straightened out the distinction between it and cleavers.
  • marsh bedstraw (Galium palustre) (madder family)
  • blue vervain (Verbena hastata) (vervain family) – I would venture to guess that verbena would be the more recognizable name these days, what with lemon verbena cropping up in herbal teas and such. This plant’s leaves had an ill smell – something like bittersweet nightshade, as best I can recall.
  • tall nettle (Urtica procera) (nettle family) – I remember getting stung when I was a kid by what was assumed afterward to be a nettle. It was fiercely painful. I let this one brush the back of my hand and got a genuinely painful but by no means overwhelming immediate sting and protracted burn. One little white lump, so I suppose I only got one stinger in me.
  • common St. Johnswort (Hypericum perforatum) (St. Johnswort family) – This is easily distinguishable from the following by the size of the leaves, which I failed to pick up on last season. Even that was better than the previous season, when I somehow failed to notice any of this common weed at all.
  • spotted St. Johnswort (Hypericum punctatum) (St. Johnswort family)
  • stout blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium angustifolium) (iris family) – “Stout” is a strange kind of translation of “angustifolium”, which would normally come out something like “narrowleaf”, but stout is what Newcomb’s calls it. This one’s stem/leaf was, in fact, stoutish (over 1/8 in.)

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.

Long Bike Ride

Sunday, May 28th, 2006

Out on the Minuteman trail as usual, to the Bedford train station and back. It is curious that I have yet to be bitten by a mosquito this year – I’m pretty sure that by this time last year I was being eaten alive. The ride was exceedingly pleasurable. A bit of rain, which felt liberating, and got me good and filthy. I recognized a killdeer’s call for the first time, and saw it flying far above.  Heard a very clear and close wood thrush, too.

  • pale hawkweed (Hieracium floribundum) (composite family) – this, and two other species, are all referred to as “king devil”. The differences are pretty subtle. This had hair on its stem, so it wasn’t smooth hawkweed, and the leaves didn’t seem hairy enough (they had a bloom to them) to be field hawkweed. I continue to be annoyed by the family compositae, which seems far too fixated on the one trait of composite flowers and groups a lot of very distinct plants. A good reason to learn more about systematics!
  • tower mustard (Arabis glabra) (mustard family) – I can’t believe I didn’t notice this last year – it’s everywhere. The first place I saw it was at the tick patch, but it’s to be found along the bike path pretty much all the way out. It is definitely glabrous, with a marked bloom to it. I’m not 100% positive on my ID here, since the leaves seemed entire to me, but I guess they are probably subtly toothed. The drawings in Newcomb’s look entire-leaved, anyways, and everything else matched. While I was at the tick patch, I noticed that the black locusts are starting to bloom. I’m very excited to see more of the pea family as the summer goes on.
  • black cherry (Prunus serotina) (rose family) – This is much like the chokecherry, but more of a tree, and with blunter teeth on the leaves. Once I’d caught its in-flower gestalt, I was able to see that it’s really extremely common by the tick patch and the railroad-path heading out from there. It’s pretty much the only tree around now with racemes of roselike flowers. I’m not sure what the “serotina” in the name is about – the only context I know “serotinous” in is that of pine cones which don’t drop seed immediately, e.g. those of the pitch pine, which want fire to do that trick.
  • rugosa rose (Rosa rugosa) (rose family) – This is a nice, big purple rose. Wicked spiny at the top of the stem. I suppose the “rugosa” refers to the leaves, which have sunken veins. The flowers smell lovely. I’d seen it a lot last year, but never got further in identifying it than calling it a rose. Which, being a rose, it is.
  • hobblebush (Viburnum alnifolium) (honeysuckle family) – Again, not entirely sure about the ID here. I have not been having great luck distinguishing viburnums. This one had the ring of huge, sexless flowers around the flower cluster, but they were not symmetrical as hobblebush’s seem to be. I suppose this could have been a cultivated viburnum. The leaves are also sorta reminiscent of alder leaves, which suits the “alnifolium”.

In that general area, I also saw some members of the pink family starting to show their faces – white campion and bladder campion. I was surprised to see the latter, which I think of as later than the white. On the way out, I scratched my bike to a quick halt on the dirt path when I saw a large snake lying across it (and this but six feet or so from the Alewife parking garage!). It made no attempt to move, and I was getting out my camera when some jackass came barreling by on his bike. I thought he’d run the snake over, and was angry, but it slithered off seemingly OK. I think it was just a garter snake, about two feet long.

Out to Lexington…

  • bluets (Houstonia caerulea) (madder family) – These were forming a gorgeous cloud over a lawn. They’re also known, charmingly, as “Innocence” or “Quaker Ladies”.
  • wild geranium (Geranium maculatum) (geranium family) – These are also known as spotted cranesbill (the leaves are maculate and the seed pod looks like guess what). I first saw a single specimen of these near the bluets. It was small and irregular, and in a patch of poison ivy, so I wasn’t able to determine more than that it wasn’t likely a musk mallow, which is what I’d thought at first sight. Later on I found a nice patch right by the side of the bike trail. As I was trying to key them out, a guy rode past and yelled out “It’s an aster!”. Desi (hard of hearing lately): “What?”. Guy: “An aster!”. Desi (at the now distant biker’s back): “Too early!” He turned back and I keyed it out and finally found it. He asked which flower book I have, and said he liked it, but it was for all the wrong reasons – he said it had a good color key. He hated garlic mustard and invasive weeds.
  • cuckooflower (Cardamine pratensis) (mustard family) – This is a sloppy sort of sprawling plant. Also called “lady’s smock”. It was growing along an extremely wet trailside, along with some Gill-over-the-ground and
  • creeping buttercup (Ranunculus repens) (buttercup family) – I saw this one last year a lot. It’s the one with the mottled leaves.
  • ragged robin (Lychnis flos-cuculi) (pink family) – Also called “cuckooflower”, though “cuckoo’s flower” would probably be better. I love that I saw two flowers with this name in one day. This is a plant I saw last year, but only once. This year it seemed reasonably common along the bike path – I saw at least 20 of them.
  • birds-eye speedwell (Veronica chamaedrys) (figwort family) – This is by far the most beautiful of the speedwells I’ve seen. The flowers are big, like almost 1/2 inch, and intensely blue.
  • large-leaved white violet (Viola incognita) (violet family) – the name pretty much says it all. I thought the top petals were a bit recurved, but they were by no means narrow, and in every other respect it matched the description in Newcomb perfectly.
  • one-flowered cancerroot (Orobanche uniflora) (broomrape family) – Also known as ghost pipe. This is apparently parasitic, and doesn’t bother developing chlorophyll.