Bold, myrmecophagous catbird

July 17th, 2006 by desultor

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

July 8th, 2006 by desultor
  • 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

June 26th, 2006 by desultor

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

June 17th, 2006 by desultor

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

June 12th, 2006 by desultor

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

June 3rd, 2006 by desultor

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

May 28th, 2006 by desultor

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.

bike ride after work

May 23rd, 2006 by desultor

Arlington’s Great Meadows:

  • bulbous buttercup (Ranunculus bulbosus) (buttercup family) – The sepals were bent back against the stem. This was on the Minuteman trail, a ways before AGM.
  • brown thrasher (Toxostoma rufum) (mimidae) – Heard this one first. I was pretty sure of the sound, even though there were a lot of catbirds around making things confusing. Eventually it flew across the clearing I was in. It was pretty big, and very brown. I thought of it as “between a blue jay and a crow” in size.
  • northern flicker (Colaptes auratus) (picidae) – I flushed this one from the path when I came over a hill (apparently they eat ants in openings). It flew up into a tree, and I was able to inch closer. It wasn’t until I heard it sing that I figured out what it was.
  • american woodcock (Scolopax minor) (scolopacidae) – I flushed one while I was sneaking up on the flicker. Its beak was ridiculously long and its body gourdlike, and it flew clumsily, like a bumblebee. Two more flew away fifteen seconds later or so.

alewife tick-patch and on the way to work

May 21st, 2006 by desultor

I biked out to my favorite abandoned spot out behind Alewife station. Was very careful about ticks this time – still residually wigged out from the vast numbers of them that were crawling on me after I came out from near the buttonbush and oil-slick stink-river two weeks ago. I remember that I’ve seen a few homeless camps in the woods around here. With the ticks and the ubiquitous poison-ivy (not to mention the numerous and voracious mosquitoes – at least last year) this seems like a Bad Place to Live.

There wasn’t anything particularly interesting here, and so I headed on out the Minuteman path. After a few miles of pure celandine and garlic mustard, I got bored and hungry and headed back. But on the way, right by the pond where last year I saw all those great turtles hiding in garbage, and that tragically misplaced heart-leaved umbrellawort (a plant I’ve not seen again anywhere else) growing from the sidewalk, I caught a flash of purple, and

  • Narrow-leaved vetch (Vicia angustifolia) (pea family) – these are really quite beautiful. I find vetches particularly charismatic for some reason – I guess it’s my fondness for any member of the pea family, combined with their weird grabby leaf tendrils. I think this is the fourth kind of vetch I’ve run across. A catbird was running through some of its licks while I keyed this one out.

Afterwards, I remembered something I’d seen near work, and biked on over. For some reason the name “cranebill” had come into my head the other day, and I was disappointed when I looked it up and found something unlike the flower I’d seen. But with a key, turns out my friend here is

  • Storksbill (Erodarium cicutarium) (geranium family) – the seedpods are hilariously long, and don’t seem to have finished elongating.
  • Field pansy (Viola kitaibeliana) (violet family) – I thought perhaps this was a garden plant, since I couldn’t find it in Newcomb. But on a closer look the seemingly divided leaves were actually huge divided stipules, and the leaves were just lobed. It was a white flower with a yellow throat, and I could see blue on the more stemwards part of the flower.  I don’t know why this is called kitaibeliana by Newcomb and arvensis by other sources…

Sodus Bay

May 20th, 2006 by desultor

Last weekend was another interesting and profitable one, flower-wise. At or near the family cottage in NY state:

  • large-flowered trillium (Trillium grandiflorum) (lily family) – I found my first trillium ever on the island, and when I told my mother about it she showed me a hillside near Chimney Bluffs which was crawling with them, including strange mutant varieties with green stripes.
  • wake-robin (Trillium erectum) (lily family) – also called “birthroot”. Presumably there’s some sort of medical connection, but I haven’t really found a good reference for tracking this down yet.
  • cursed crowfoot (Ranunculus sceleratus) (buttercup family) – not only buttercup family, as was obvious to me from the shiny petals and general shape, but buttercup genus. This one was growing down on the shore on the island. Purple deadnettle and hemp dogbane were growing nearby, but it’s not as scary as it sounds. I wonder what the “cursed” is all about – the Latin ‘sceleratus’ has a feeling of guilt or villainy to me. Pissed off farmers?
  • small-flowered crowfoot (Ranunculus abortivus) (buttercup family) – I saw about a billion of these growing along the island paths. Pretty straggly looking and the flowers aren’t much different from the cursed crowfoot, but it has round basal leaves while those of R. sceleratus are deeply lobed.
  • hooked crowfoot (Ranunculus recurvatus) (buttercup family) – only saw one of these, growing right next to the couple wooly blue violets I saw.
  • thyme-leaved speedwell (Veronica serpyllifolia) (figwort family) – growing everywhere along the paths, in with the small-flowered crowfoot, but more inclined to the drier parts. I knew I’d seen this before, and when I got back home I remembered that it’s all over my backyard in Somerville. “Serpyllum” is Latin for thyme. Also when I got home, I made the flying leap of deduction to find the actual thyme growing in my landlords’ front garden. Spicy as hell!
  • wooly blue violet (Viola sororia) (violet family) – yet another violet! At first glance I thought it was a regular ol’ dooryard violet, but it’s paler and the flower is bigger. It is distinguished from the Northern blue violet by the lack of fuzz on its bottom petal, so I can only assume that its other parts are fuzzier than the Northern. I always feel a bit naughty when I’m distinguishing violets, since you really have to get all up in their shit.
  • jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema) (arum family) – Newcomb’s guide splits this into three species but claims that some authorities treat it as a single species. Just as well since I didn’t have a chance to key it out. Ever since I started wildflowers I’ve been on fire to see this, since it’s one of the wildflowers I remember my mother pointing out when we’d go canoeing on Hemlock lake long ago. I’m pretty sure that’s actually how I learned what a pulpit was – mother had to explain to heathen Desi. It’s an inconspicuous, hidey sort of character, which I saw on the hillside with the trilliums. Very neat to be with my mother when I finally came across this one.
  • false solomon’s seal (Smilacina racemosa) (lily family) – easily distinguished from the real deal by the raceme: real solomon’s seal’s flowers dangle from the axils.
  • smooth yellow violet (Viola pennsylvanica) (violet family) – another violet! This was on the rich, rich trillium hill. I didn’t have time to key it out, but the downy yellow violet seems to prefer dry woods, and the halberd-leaved violet seems more southerly.

I also saw and heard a house wren for the first time (princeling of all birds at best), and heard what I could have sworn to be a northern flicker.