An Exobasidium fungus grows on a rusty menziesia leaf. (Photo by Michael Melampy)

An Exobasidium fungus grows on a rusty menziesia leaf. (Photo by Michael Melampy)

On the Trails: Scrapbook of summer observations

Summer came, with the colorful blooming of tall fireweed. Hermit thrushes were still singing and, on two different trails, juvenile hermits lingered on the open path even when approached by large bipeds. Lincoln’s sparrows sang along the edges of wetland meadows; I’ve had a hard time learning to recognize their little burbles, but I’m slowly getting it. Sometimes they share this edge habitat with savannah sparrows that nest in the grassy meadows and song sparrows that nest in thickets and shrubbery.

On a stroll through the woods to Point Louisa, I noticed that sweet cicely (Osmorhiza) was very common and fruits were developing. We may have three species of this genus here, but I haven’t learned to distinguish them. The fruits are long and narrow. Near one end are rows of short barbs that hook onto fur or fabric, getting a temporary free ride to some place where a seedling might get established. They are borne on long, sprawling little branches, making a distinctive display. Many members of the carrot family, such as parsnips, have potent phototoxins called furanocoumarins, but Osmorhiza is said to lack those particular toxins. Furthermore, it commonly grows in shady places, where light probably has much less effect on any other phototoxins that might be present, so both generalist and specialist insect herbivores may feed on it.

Sweet-cicely (Osmorhiza) displays its maturing seeds and bears a foam shelter of a spittlebug. (Photo by Mary F. Willson)

Sweet-cicely (Osmorhiza) displays its maturing seeds and bears a foam shelter of a spittlebug. (Photo by Mary F. Willson)

I also noticed that sweet cicely and many other plants bore the foam blobs that house and protect spittlebug nymphs. The nymphs feed on watery, nutrient-poor xylem fluids moving up from roots, not on the more nutritious phloem coming from leaves, and all the excess water has to be excreted. They found a use for it, in the foam covering that conceals them from predators and parasites and provides control over temperature and moisture inside the shelter. Their nutrient supply is enhanced by two kinds of symbiotic bacteria that make essential amino acids. Spittle bugs are true bugs, belonging to an order of sucking insects along with numerous others, such as aphids. The adults are called froghoppers, for their jumping abilities. In common parlance, we often refer to any pesty insect as a “bug” (think of mosquitos and other flies, for instance), but that is not taxonomically correct.

A bit earlier in the season, hikers noticed a weird gall on the leaves of rusty Menziesia. Helpful staff at the Forestry Sciences Lab gave it a name; it’s a fungus in the genus Exobasidium. There are maybe fifty species in this genus, mostly afflicting members of the taxonomic family Ericaceae—the blueberries, azaleas and rhododendrons, Labrador tea, mountain-heathers, and many others. A friend told me that this gall is actually edible, being sweet and crunchy. The specimens that I’ve seen had the form of a pouch with a thick, knobby, white exterior….that’s the edible bit, I’m told.

Back on my home ground, lots was happening. Late June and early July brought juvenile juncos in all stages of growing up, from heavily streaked young ones to those losing their streaks and starting to get adult plumage patterns. All the juncos eventually learned to peck gobbets of peanut butter from hanging feeders, doing so with considerably more agility than one might expect, but not quite as nimbly as chickadees. The nuthatch family separated, but they then came separately for peanut butter, suet, and sunflower seeds. Chickadees almost disappeared, having raised a brood that dispersed. A big, fat varied thrush raided the peanut butter feeder regularly, making an awkward job of it but persisting. Jays did so too, somewhat less awkwardly, and more assertively. As juvenile hummers started to visit the nectar feeder, there was more activity there, with more aggression and more chases.

Starting in mid-June a male hairy woodpecker came for peanut butter and suet very regularly at least until mid-July (when I write this). On one day, I was surprised to see two males at the same time, and later they both visited again but separately, coming from different directions. In late June, one of those males arrived with a big juvenile, who soon began to come independently.

The major action was down on the pond itself. For a time, the pond was a resting place for a molting male and a female mallard who hung out together for several days, loafing side by side and occasionally moving to the little cove on the far side of the pond. This seemed unusual, for presumably a seriously molting male is past the stage of interest in copulating and, furthermore, is unlikely to be sexually attractive to females.

Two different broods of four and five tiny, fluffy mallard ducklings, arrived in mid-June, just a few days apart, but they didn’t stay. Then at the end of the first week of July, another brood of four downy chicks came in; this was probably from a re-nesting by a female that lost her first clutch. As the season progressed, things got confusing, because I have no way of knowing for sure which female or which brood is which. Suffice it to say that by the beginning of July, there were two broods of six or seven very big chicks, slightly smaller than their mothers, fully feathered but with wing feathers still too short. One of these appeared to set up residence on the pond: a brood of six very big chicks came daily for a week or more. Sometimes they loafed on the pond, with mama always standing tall and alert; sometimes they rested on the bank, with mama awake while the chicks slept; occasionally the chicks fed on bugs along the bank or on fallen seeds, with mama watching carefully; occasionally they all cruised over the dam and headed downstream for a while. I strongly suspect that they spent the nights on or near the pond, as they were present at the time of first good light (yes, I was out of bed then) and at the last good light of the day. So it has been a pretty good year for duck broods here.

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