Category Archives: Nature

Woodpeckers: Pileated Woodpecker

Photo of Pileated Woodpecker (male)

Of New England's nine* species of woodpeckers, the Pileated Woodpecker (PIWO) is by far the largest and the only type with a bright red crest. In flight, PIWOs flash white wing-patches. Males and females are largely similar, though only the males have red foreheads and red mustache stripes.

PIWOs feed extensively on carpenter ants and routinely drill deep, rectangular excavations to uncover their prey in tree trunks. Though PIWOs are often blamed for turning healthy trees into piles of wood chips, trees are most often dead (or dying) and thoroughly infested with wood-chewing ants (or other insects) before hole creation begins.

To learn more about these crow-sized forest-dwellers, visit All About Birds. To view the following images in full-size, click here.

*Northern Flicker, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, and Downy, Hairy, Red-bellied, and Pileated Woodpecker, account for the 6 common species; American Three-toed and Black-backed Woodpecker are residents of northern boreal forests; Red-headed Woodpecker occurs annually in New England in small numbers, but is much more common to our south and west.

Foraging Wild Flowers: Common Dandelion

Photo of Common Dandelion flower

Common Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) offers many gifts to the modern forager. In April and May, the flower buds and brightly blooming flowers are a delicious snack, salad ingredient, or soup component. The flowers can also be infused to make a delicious tea.

Photo of Common Dandelion flower

I've written previously about foraging the leaves of Common Dandelion, but for those new to eating wild plants, it's the mild tasting yellow petals that I find make the best introduction. To avoid the bitterness that the green parts contain, simply loosen and remove the yellow petals by rolling each flower head between your thumb and pointer finger.

Photo of Common Dandelion flower

Note: You may notice an increased need to urinate soon after consuming Common Dandelion parts. Consult an herbalist or herbal reference for more on the medicinal actions of this abundant perennial.

Rare Bird Alert: Tricolored Heron

Photo of Tricolored Heron

Thanks to an email message from a fellow birder via the Maine Birds listserv, I got news of a Tricolored Heron spotted near Wharton Point in Brunswick around 1pm last Saturday. Tricolored Herons have long been scarce in Maine, but in recent years, sightings have been even fewer and farther between (and not by me since 2014), so I jumped at the chance to see one!

Based on the details of the earlier report and my previous experience birding Wharton Point (where I saw my first Long-billed Dowitcher last fall), I located the white-bellied heron resting on the edge of a marsh pool a short walk east from the parking area. Though it started to drizzle during my viewing, I managed to document this coastal rarity. I hope you enjoy the photos.

To learn more about these striking wading birds, check out this Audubon profile page. To view the following images in full-size, click here.

Tiny Flowers: Shepherd’s-purse

Photo of Shepherd's-purse flowers

Now that the green season has taken hold and a handful of wildflowers are blooming, it's time again to break out Newcomb's Wildflower Guide. I noticed a plant with tiny (<1/4") white flowers last week in Wells and was pretty sure I knew who I'd found. Keying out the plant confirmed my hunch.

I began by determining the plant's 3-digit code:

Flower type: 4 Regular Parts (4--)
Plant type: Wildflowers with Alternate leaves (43-)
Leaf type: Leaves Toothed or Lobed (433)*

Then, on page 4, under group 433, the key asked if the flowers were yellow (no) or white, pink, or purple (yes), and if the leaves had an arrow-shaped base, which clasped the stem (yes, though this is not well depicted in my photos) or were not arrow-shaped (no). The key then pointed to page 136.

Of the six plants described on that page, only one description fit my mystery plant. Basal leaves deeply lobed; pods triangular (to me the pods are triangular/heart-shaped). A drawing of the plant on page 150 provided visual confirmation. The plant I'd located was Capsella bursa-pastoris, known as Shepherd's-purse, a member of the Mustard (Brassicaceae) family.

Shepherd's-purse is a widespread, weedy species who typically grows in disturbed soil in full sun. The flowers, immature seed pods, and tender leaves and shoots are edible, especially for those who enjoy a spicy mustard flavor (boiling can reduce the flavor, if desired). The mature pods can also be used as a spice. Arthur Haines documents many medicinal uses for this herbaceous annual in Ancestral Plants (Vol. 2, 2015, p. 126-27). You can find more photos of Shepherd's-purse at GoBotany.

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

*Note: Looking at the basal leaves (instead of the stem leaves), you might wonder whether they're considered divided or toothed/lobed. Newcomb's guide accounts for this confusion by directing you to Shepherd's-purse whether you choose the former or the latter.

Foraging Wild Flowers: Coltsfoot

Photo of Coltsfoot

Native to Eurasia, Coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara) now grows in a variety of disturbed habitats (e.g., roadsides, stream banks, railroad beds) across New England. Coltsfoot's bright yellow flower heads, which consist of narrow ray flowers and tiny 5-parted disk flowers (Common Dandelion has only ray flowers), are among the earliest wildflowers to bloom in spring. Flower stalks are hairy, with small, scale-like leaves; green leaves emerge later, and have densely hairy undersides.

Coltsfoot has both edible (the flowers, fleshy stems, and young leaves can be eaten raw or cooked) and medicinal (preparations of the leaves can help with treatment of coughs) uses, but since all of the local patches I know of are growing in spots that are unsafe to forage in, I've yet to experiment with the plant. For more details, read the account of Tussilago farfara in Ancestral Plants (Vol. 1, 2010, p. 190-91) by Arthur Haines and this Edible Flowers article by Green Deane.

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