Category Archives: Nature

Tree ID: Hop-hornbeam

Photo of Hop-hornbeam

Hop-hornbeam (Ostrya virginiana) is a short-lived understory tree with dense wood and fruits that superficially resemble those of Common Hop (Humulus lupulus). The bark starts out smooth but before long becomes rather shaggy as it splits into narrow, partly exfoliating strips. As with other members of the Betulaceae (Birch) family -- like Speckled Alder, Beaked Hazelnut, Gray Birch, and the similarly named American Hornbeam -- Hop-hornbeam has pollen-bearing (male) and seed-bearing (female) flowers arranged in separate clusters known as catkins.

To learn more about Hop-hornbeam, visit Go Botany. To view the following images in full-size, click here.

Poisonous Plants: Glossy False Buckthorn

Photo of Glossy False Buckthorn

I occasionally receive emails from people eager to know the identify of a particular fruit-bearing plant. Some have wondered if they've found Black Huckleberry. Others have guessed Choke Cherry. But all too often photos reveal their mystery plant to be Glossy False Buckthorn (Frangula alnus), a poisonous plant (or at least one with strong medicinal properties) as far as humans are concerned.

While there are many ways to tell these three species apart, one simple way is to examine the seeds. Each Choke Cherry contains one hard, central pit; each Black Huckleberry has ten small, crunchy seeds; Glossy False Buckthorn berries have __________. [I could tell you the answer, but it's more fun to go and find out for yourself. Report back with your findings.]

To learn more about this shrub, visit Go Botany. To view the following images in full-size, click here.

Rare Bird Alert: Little Egret

Photo of Little Egret (25 Jul 2017)
Falmouth, ME | 25 Jul 2017

For the 5th year since 2011 (and the 3rd year in a row), a rare Little Egret has been observed in southern coastal Maine. First reported this year on July 11th, I tried several times over the next two weeks to find the bird, who looks very much like a Snowy Egret, but kept coming up empty. Finally on July 25th, thanks in large part to the reports of other birders, I managed to locate the bird with 9 Snowy Egrets near the north meadow blind at Gilsland Farm in Falmouth.

To learn more about this white wading bird, read How to see a Little Egret by Doug Hitchcox. To view the following images in full-size, click here.

Shorebirds: American Oystercatcher

Photo of American Oystercatcher

A bright, red-orange bill and bubblegum colored legs make American Oystercatchers one of the easiest New England shorebirds to identify. Being easy to identify, however, doesn't mean they're easy to find. American Oystercatchers are listed as a species of special concern in Maine, which is the northern edge of their Atlantic coast range, with only 4 to 8 nesting pairs in the entire state.* If you live in coastal New England, or plan to visit this summer, and want a chance at finding an American Oystercatcher, help narrow your search by checking out recent sightings on eBird. Governed by rising and falling tides, American Oystercatchers forage at lower tides on mudflats, beaches, and shellfish beds. During high tide, they roost on islands or in coastal dunes.

To learn more about these large, bivalve-eating, pink-legged shorebirds, visit All About Birds. To view the following images in full-size, click here.

*Maine 2015 Wildlife Action Plan Revision

Wetland Plants: Pickerelweed

Photo of Pickerelweed

One morning earlier this month, I spent a few hours kayaking in a shallow pond that was home to a vast colony of blooming Pickerelweed (Pontederia cordata). I've known, or at least recognized, Pickerelweed, for over a decade now as a common aquatic plant with arrow-shaped leaves and a blue-purple flower spike, but I'd never looked at the plant's flowers up close -- they are so hairy.

According to John Eastman (The Book of Swamp and Bog, 1994, p. 143), dragonfly and damselfly nymphs commonly climb up Pickerelweed plants when they're ready to transform into winged adults and leave their empty exoskeletons behind as evidence.

Eastman also notes that various dabbling ducks, such as American Black Duck, Mallard, and Northern Pintail, eat the seeds of Pickerelweed, which ripen in late summer. Though I've not yet tried them, humans can also eat the seeds raw, roasted, or boiled. For more details on human uses, see Ancestral Plants (Vol. 1, 2010, p. 166) by Arthur Haines.

To view the following images in full-size, click here.