Winter Tree ID: Quaking Poplar

Photo of Quaking Poplar leaf margin

During the green season, my ears will often notice Quaking Poplar (Populus tremuloides) before my eyes have. Even a light breeze causes leaves to shiver, or quake, on their flattened leaf stalks, and these movements produce a pleasing poplar song. In the white season, Quaking Poplar is rather quiet, but various visual clues help this tree to stand out.

From a distance, the smooth, whitish or even greenish bark of Quaking Poplar stands out. The base of older trees may be anything but smooth, but clean-looking bark can often be seen simply by looking up. Smooth sections at eye-level are great places to look for the claw marks of mammals.

Winter buds are brown, shiny and typically pressed up against the twigs, as opposed to the hairy buds of Big-toothed Poplar (P. grandidentata) which tend to stick out. Check for clinging or fallen leaves which are triangular to nearly round, with shallowly toothed margins and stalks that are flattened where they meet the leaf blade.

Quaking Aspen can spread by underground rhizomes and is therefore often found in colonies. You may know this species by one of several other common names, including Quaking Aspen, Trembling Aspen/Poplar, or just plain Popple. (To view the following images in full-size, click here.)

Winter Tree ID: Black Locust

Photo of Black Locust seed pods

The list of leguminous tree species (members of the Fabaceae family) I've encountered is short. I've seen Kentucky Yellow-wood (Cladrastis kentukea), Redbud (Cercis canadensis), Silk-tree (Albizia julibrissin), and Honey-locust (Gleditsia triacanthos), but for the most part they've been ornamental plantings found along roadsides or near homes. The notable exception is Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia), a species who while not native to New England has naturalized in a variety of disturbed habitats throughout the region.

In winter, Black Locust trees can be recognized by their persisting pods, which split open to reveal small dark seeds. Bark and twig characteristics are also useful. Branches often have pairs of sharp spines at each leaf node. Winter buds are mostly hidden, sometimes peeking out from under leaf scars. Small trees can be decorated with formidable thorns. Black Locust bark develops deep ridges with age. (To view the following photos in full-size, click here.)

Black Locust can grow quickly, even in poor soils, and has wood that is rot-resistant and energy dense. These features, along with an ability to re-sprout after being cut, make this species a valuable renewable building material and firewood source.

The edible flowers are worth seeking out in spring (see Foraging Wild Flowers: Black Locust), and Haines reports that immature pods and mature seeds (removed from their pods) are edible when cooked. (He notes that mature seeds should be soaked prior to cooking to deactivate antinutrients -- read pages 59-60 of Ancestral Plants for more details). For more uses of Black Locust, visit Temperate Climate Permaculture.

Quiz #137: Tree

As the fruit suggests, today's mystery tree is a member of the Bean or Legume family (Fabaceae). This particular tree's twigs had paired thorns (technically spines) at most leaf nodes, but not all trees show this feature. Name the tree. (Photographed in Saco, ME.)

Photo of Quiz #137: Tree

Click here for the answer.


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January is for Birding

Photo of Red-shouldered Hawk

What is a New England forager to do in January? Go birding, of course!

Each January 1st marks the start of a new year of birding. I set aside the previous year's bird list and begin anew. I see each species with fresh eyes, and the ever-present possibility for avian surprises nudges me to get outside in all but the most severe weather.

As of this morning, I've observed 87 species in 2015, including many unexpected ones (American Pipit, Bohemian Waxwing, Brown Thrasher, Eurasian Wigeon, Killdeer, King Eider, Rough-legged Hawk, Western Tanager, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker), and one major surprise (Gyrfalcon). Many of these birds were first found by other birders who shared their sightings via eBird or the Maine Birds forum. Thank you to those birders! The following photos were all taken this month. (To view them in full-size, click here.)

This year, in addition to roaming nearby towns for year birds, I've started most days off with a morning backyard bird sit (a type of Sit Spot Moon Challenge that I began on the new moon back in December and ended yesterday). From my backyard perch, I observed nearly 25 species of birds, including three types of hawks (Red-shouldered, Red-tailed and Cooper's), three types of finches (American Goldfinch, Pine Siskin, and one fly-over Common Redpoll), four types of woodpeckers (Downy, Hairy, Red-bellied, and Pileated), and a Common Raven.

Photo of Red-bellied Woodpecker

One week into the challenge, it became clear that both a female Red-bellied Woodpecker (above) and a male Hairy Woodpecker (below) were spending their nights in my backyard (in side-by-side Necklace Poplars). Most mornings, I'd watch them peer out of their respective holes around 7am, and, somewhere between 7:05 and 7:45am, I'd watch one or both take flight to kick off the day. These two neighbors and all of the other winged ones of winter have helped me to kick off another great year of nature-based learning!

Photo of Hairy Woodpecker

Top photo caption: Red-shouldered Hawk in Necklace Poplar on 1/11/15.

Coastal Crabs: Jonah Crab

Photo of Johan Crab parts

The largest crab shells I run into on Maine beaches belong to Jonah Crabs (Cancer borealis). Along with Atlantic Rock Crabs (C. irroratus), these crustaceans are the source of native "Maine crabmeat" (see Maine Seafood Guide). Last year, I was fortunate to be given a hefty sum of freshly harvested Jonah Crab claws. I cooked and feasted on a pile of them and shared the rest with family and friends. My fingers were a bit sore at the end of the day from picking through the tough claw shells, but the sweet inner meat was well worth the effort.

Jonah Crabs can be separated from Atlantic Rock Crabs by examining the margin and overall shape of their shells. The Species ID card put out by the Gulf of Maine Research Institute includes drawings which highlight the differences.

Photo of Jonah Crab shell

Quiz #136: Seashore

Identify this sandy natural mystery. (Photographed at Fortune's Rocks Beach, in Biddeford, ME.)

Photo of Quiz #136: Seashore

Click here for the answer.


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Winter Shrub ID: Highbush Blueberry

Photo of Highbush Blueberry broom

"Why do some plants grow Witch's Brooms?", a teacher once asked. Before anyone could respond, he answered, "So that we can identify them more easily, of course."

Though said in jest, it's nonetheless true that many odd plant growths are species specific and can serve as shortcuts to identification. Here in coastal southern Maine, growths of crowded woody twigs, called witch's brooms, allow for quick recognition of Highbush Blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum). While similar abnormal growths do occur on other woody species, locally this host seems the most common. Witch's brooms are caused by infections brought on by various organisms. In the case of Highbush Blueberry, the brooms result from a rust fungus known as Pucciniastrum goeppertianum.¹ I don't recall seeing these brooms when I lived in Plainville, MA; likely because Balsam Fir, the alternative host of the fungus, is uncommon in that part of the state.

Another odd growth on Highbush Blueberry that I did see in Plainville is the blueberry kidney gall.² This gall forms around the eggs of a small wasp (Hemadas nubilipennis) and serves as a larval shelter. Galls from previous seasons will often show multiple exit holes -- evidence that the insects have emerged.  I've yet to notice any of these in southern Maine; perhaps the wasp prefers a milder climate.

Absent the above clues, look for the plump pink/red buds on winter twigs and brown bark on older growth that shreds into thin strips. For more help recognizing this widespread fruit-bearing species, check out the images below. (To view them in full-size, click here.)


¹ Witches' Broom, University of Minnesota Extension.

² Stokes Guide to Nature in Winter by Donald Stokes (1979) discusses these and other commonly encountered galls.

Winter Tree ID: Paper Birch

Photo of Paper Birch bark

Paper Birch (Betula papyrifera) grows throughout much of Canada as well as parts of the northern United States, including most of New England. At a distance, Paper Birch may be confused with Gray Birch, but up close the thin, exfoliating sheets of bark give Paper Birch away.

Young trees have reddish-brown bark with light-colored breathing holes, called lenticels. These dark layers of bark are shed with age, revealing pink, tan, or creamy white surfaces. Large trees can appear bright white or dirty gray, but always show dark horizontal lenticels. Male flower catkins, if present, also help to tell this species apart from Gray Birch. Paper Birch catkins are in clusters of 2-5; those of Gray Birch are mostly single or paired.

Paper Birch bark contains highly flammable oil, which makes even wet pieces superb fire-starting material. Sheets of bark can also be made into functional berry baskets and watertight containers. Dead or dying trees may host the medicinal mushrooms Tinder Conk, Chaga, and Birch Polypore.

Quiz #135: Tree

Whose bark is this? (Photographed in Wells, ME.)

Photo of Quiz #135: Tree

Click here for the answer.


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