Living Lighter on the Land

Keeping Track of Wild Suburbia

BlackcappedChickadee012_9536bBrrr! It's cold outside.  The Chickadees are as puffed up as they can be and are staying close by their caches of energy-rich seeds and berries.  Chickadees will forage and add to their stores as winter progresses, providing hours of entertainment for an attentive birdwatcher.  They and other small songbirds need to eat the equivalent of more than 10% of their bodyweight daily just to make it through each night.  Perhaps for this reason, a number of birds congregate together in winter in what are known as "mixed foraging flocks" –  Titmice, Juncos, Nuthatches, Creepers, Kinglets, and Downy woodpeckers join the Chickadee in sharing food resources while warning of potential predators.  Where are all the other animals of winter? Should we be concerned for their welfare in this cold?

Vanishing of the bees

On the whole, any animal that makes this region its home is adapted to the extremes of temperature.  For example, birds have circulatory systems that separate the cold blood in their legs from the rest of their bodies.  The heartbeats of turtles slow to about one beat per minute, and even those living under ice can draw in oxygen through the cloaca.  Frogs can freeze and thaw, and some insects produce antifreeze proteins in their blood.  The honey bees in our hive at the "Working Backyard" demonstration site at the Armstrong Education Center do not hibernate but instead cluster together in a humming mass to maintain adequate body temperature.  They feed upon their stored honey to obtain the energy needed for this near constant activity.  With honey bees in precipitous decline, we opted not to harvest any of the sweet stuff for ourselves this year.  (For more information, stay tuned to our Events Calendar, including a showing of the documentary "Vanishing of the Bees" on April 11).  


The availability of winter food is a good predictor of which animal species hibernate and for how long.  Insectivorous bats, grass-loving woodchucks (also known as groundhogs), and fruit-loving chipmunks will all sleep until Spring has sprung.  Many more animals lie dormant for short periods and rise to forage on warm days, including skunks, squirrels, beaver, muskrat, and bear.  Mammals that do not hibernate, like the Eastern coyote and White-tailed deer, must eat enough to maintain internal body temperatures similar to our own and are therefore surprisingly active in winter and more generalist in their diets.  You have probably noticed that deer will eat just about anything vegetative.  Coyotes eat a lot of fruit and rodents in addition to young deer.  Thinking about the habits and living conditions of the animals sharing our landscape enhances ones connection to place and to the interplay of life, and is increasingly advocated as part of basic childhood education.  For conservationists, tracks provide invaluable information about the distribution and health of animals and their habitat use.

I have taken much pleasure in following the tracks of a Red fox around Armstrong Preserve this week, with fresh prints daily leading to new insights about my secretive neighbor, whom I've never actually seen.  I am touched by the play of its softly furred prints across the stark frozen surface of the Croton Reservoir, and the way each rear footfall is carefully placed to "direct register" over the preceding one.  Tracking is an art and a skill that I have yet to fully develop, but as with most worthy endeavors, the joy is in the work, or in this case the journey.  World-famous trackers Tom Brown Jr. and Susan Morse say they have never stopped learning so long as there is a track to follow.  

Wild Suburbia Workshop Flyer2




Perhaps you have a local wildlife observation to share.  Send me an email, or better yet, join Pound Ridge Land Conservancy this Saturday in welcoming Chris Nagy of the Wild Suburbia Project to the Armstrong Education Center Workshop Series.  Chris will share with us Wild Suburbia's successful citizen science project documenting the presence of five large mammal species in Westchester County and surrounding areas.  

Winter Ducks

Ring-necked Duck by Glenn Bartley

Winter is here and with it come sightings of some extraordinarily beautiful visitors to our lands and waters.  While it is true that most birds migrate south to warmer climes and richer feeding grounds, incoming migrants are just arriving from the Arctic and points north.  The Hudson Valley E-Almanac last week reported an irruption of Snowy owls in our area and the rare presence of a Greater white-fronted goose, which had gotten off course when leaving the tundra and found itself amidst a flock of Canada geese.  Late season migrants are generally larger-bodied birds, able to take the cold and to take advantage of available prey, seed stores, and habitat niches.

Hooded Merganser by Christopher Wood

The open waters of our reservoirs are prime winter duck habitat, and clear sight lines make the shore particularly rewarding for viewing the bold breeding plumages and even courtship behavior of more than twenty different Anatidae species (see Audobon's list of birds in Westchester County).  On a recent outing at the Cross River Reservoir, which is accessible by trail from both the Armstrong and Richards Preserves, I noted a raft of four Hooded mergansers and separately, a group of Buffleheads and Mallards with one Common goldeneye.  From now through February I can expect to see many more, including the lovely Ring-necked duck, Canvasback, Lesser Scaup, and others, which sometimes raft up in the hundreds or even thousands.  Were I to venture over to nearest salt-water shore, I might find spectacular seaducks like Common and King Eider, Harlequins, and Scoters bobbing in the surf. 


Harlequin ducks by Andy Johnson

Most of the birds I have mentionnned thus far would be termed "medium distance migrants," because they are resident year-round in North America and move on a predictable, seasonal rotation.  True long-distance migrants are rarer and include the Artic tern and Whooping crane, along with a number of "our" small songbirds which actually spend the majority of the year in the neotropics and thus only summer with us here.  Of course, some birds don't migrate at all, such as the familiar Northern cardinal, Downy woodpecker, and Black-capped chickadee.  They rely on a local abundance of seed, fruit, and insects to sustain them through the winter, and will move short distances (a few hundred miles) if food becomes scarce. 

Bird-lovers, hunters, and scientists have come up with various methods to predict the arrival and departure of each species in an area.  One of those methods is based on a Cumulative WSI (Weather Severity Index) = – [average daily temperature oC ] + number of consecutive days with average temperature <0 o C + snow depth + number of consecutive days with snow cover.  I recommend checking in with the E-Almanac or your local Audobon chapter for recent sightings.  We happen to be smack in the middle of the 114th Annual Audobon Christmas Bird Count, an inventory of birds seen by backyard birders from all over the world.  Sign up for a New York observation site here, and happy ducking!


Canvasback by Lois Mano




Maintaining Native Landscapes

I would bet that anybody reading this blog considers him or herself a conservationist, a steward of the land and waters supporting life on Earth.  My job as Land Steward for the seventeen parcels protected by the Pound Ridge Land Conservancy is as varied as this landscape, and yet there are common threads that tie together this work and connect to other's efforts to protect plants and wildlife, including your own.  In order to survive, all plants and animals need habitat: places to eat, sleep, reproduce, and withstand extreme climate events.  They need connectivity between habitat, either as safe passages for travel or for gene-mixing to occur through reproduction (prolonging the long-term health of a species).  Our main job as conservationists is to maintain the health of native landscapes so that habitat and connections exist to support the web of life on which we all depend.  

Increasingly, my time on the land is taken up with control of plants and animals that are newcomers to our landscape.  Not all non-native species are a cause for concern, but those that are classified as "invasive" threaten the health of ecosystems when they out-compete native species and alter the composition of communities.  Species that are invasive have the potential to affect food webs and habitats in dramatic and irreversible ways, which is why conservationists worldwide are concerned about the increased mobility of organisms into and out of ecosystems that were previously more "closed" by natural barriers of time and space. 

Even species that are technically native to our country as not necessarily desireable in the local landscape, which comes as a surprise to most people, who are accustomed to thinking in terms of political and state boundaries rather than ecological ones.  The plants and animals in our community have adapted to one another and to prevailing environmental conditions through eons, and are unlikely to benefit from an influx of new genetic material in the system.  In the case of plants especially, specially-raised cultivars can pollute the gene pool of local plants, impairing their ability to serve the animals that have co-adapted to depend upon them.

A prime example is Giant reed, or Phragmites, a local species that has been corrupted by genes from its cousin (native to the Pacific Northwest), resulting in an aggressively spreading rootstock that monopolizes wetlands and vastly reduces biodiversity.  It is nearly impossible to find the local and non-invasive variety of Phragmites today.  We have been working hard to combat its spread at the Isaacson Preserve, home to a globally rare fen habitat that still holds a healthy and specialized community of plants, insects, and birdlife.  Even in PRLC's small protected preserves, life succeeds by adapting to changing conditions we have little control over and which are often too complicated for us to fully comprehend.  What we do know is that native species and landscapes are resilient, and that many if not most of our native species can succeed with careful management and remediation of human impacts.

PRLC has been working with numerous local conservation partners to devise a strategy that will limit the further spread of invasive species into sensitive areas.  You can help (and learn more) by staying tuned to this blog and by joining us at our Volunteer Work Sessions on the first Saturday of each month (10am-noon).  At home, you can help wildlife immediately by replacing nursery-bred cultivars with native species (find out how here, and soon, on our website).  Encourage your local municipality to do the same, using New York City as an example of a community that has outlawed the planting of non-native genotypes on city streets in order to protect wildlife in the city and beyond.  We are all connected in today's world, and we must work together to protect the integrity of native landscapes to support local flora and fauna, or lose it forever.


Fall Gardening

The Armstrong Education Center garden reached its peak in early September with an abundance of beans, squash, tomatoes, and okra.  Okra you say? You should try it!  The plants are vigorous growers with gorgeous red stalks and broad green leaves in tiers.  They make a semi-porous hedge over 6 feet tall by October.  Ours conveniently hid the tomato plants as they withered and browned and yet allowed plenty of sun through to redden the fruit.  Okra makes a beautiful flower too, with large creamy petals around a dark chocolate center.  Our bees visited them often.

The success of our garden depends upon bees and other insects to pollinate what plants are not wind-pollinated.  Speaking of wind-pollinated crops, corn was a disappointment in our garden this season.  Dryness, wind, and climbing bean vines conspired to pull down many of the corn stalks in our Three Sisters plot.  Note: Next time, I'll reinforce each mound with a tall stick deeply set in the center to which the stalks can be tied.  One of our great surprises was the large yellow pumpkin that can be seen in the photograph above among the okra plants.  It must have come from the Great Pumpkin, or more likely as a volunteer from our compost pile.  We receive a quantity of compostable vegetable matter from Scott's Corner Market, our local grocery store, and I believe our fabulous melon crop also came in from the market.  It's a win-win situation, recycling what is usable and with the benefit of golden, juicy canteloupe in addition to enriched soil.

Our garden also depends upon the support of the community and volunteer help, and we have been lucky to have a volunteer from Fox Lane High School extend her summer internship into fall.  Alizah helped us to harvest all season, to keep the plants productive, but recently that takes up the majority of the time we have gardening.  There are potatoes to dig, beans to shell, herbs to dry and leaves to wash. It's a good thing she got out in early August and planted our fall garden: mainly roots and greens.  We also planted some cover crops of crimson clover in areas that were ready to be cleared (photo on right).  All we have to do there is occasionally water and watch the slow progression of plant growth in fall.  When the clover is about eight weeks old, we will turn it into the soil as a green manure to aid next year's vegetable crop. 

Indoors, we've used a number of methods to preserve some of our bounty.  Tomatoes have been frozen, cooked and jarred, dehydrated, and served in all manner of dishes from breakfast to dinner.  Zucchini have been baked, broiled, grated, and steamed (they store better when pre-cooked).  We have jars of pinto beans and a pantry full of oiled winter squash (the oil retards fungal growth).  We even have apples from our tree, which we store apart from other produce because of their tendency to promote ripening.  Stay tuned to our events calendar for future workshops on canning and other methods for preserving the fruits of your labor. 

As a final note to our fall garden program, we set up the cold frame just this week.  It is oriented to receive the most of our winter sun and is insulated with hay and foam from another project.  With seed donated by the Pound Ridge Nursery , we should be able to grow greens through the winter.  We are ever mindful of resource consumption here at Armstrong, and by growing our own vegetables at home (year round!) we model one easy way to live lighter on the land.  It's also great for your body, delivering a fresh complement of nutrients to your every meal.   Happy harvest!

Kudos to our Conservation Volunteers

The start of Autumn brings me a chance to reflect upon our busy Summer of gardening, field work, and internships at Pound Ridge Land Conservancy.  Our programs of land protection and education depend upon the hard work of many helping hands, all of whom are learning to live lighter on the land.  We received a grant from a local gardening club, Rusticus, that helped us to sponsor three wonderful summer interns.  I will briefly summarize their projects here, along with the work of several volunteers who put in time and effort supporting our goals at PRLC.  Stay tuned to our website, for greater detail on their accomplishments.

Tuddy (pronouced Too-dee) came to us from Columbia University Graduate School and completed an internship in Native Landscape Design.  Her work was based at the Armstrong Education Center, where she analyzed site conditions and researched local ecology to find what plants would work best here to further our goal of establishing native plant gardens that benefit wildlife.  She designed plantings for five micro-sites that can be used to educate other area landowners about how to augment the conservation value of their property, without attracting more deer.  The over-abundance of deer in our area has resulted in decreased availability of food for other forms of wildlife, and Tuddy's plans address that issue with elegant style.  Her designs do not require fencing and showcase plants with varying seasonal interest for humans and animals alike.

Nick grew up in this area and studies plant ecology at College of the Holy Cross.  He conducted a baseline assesment of the vegetation community within our proposed deer-exclosure site at the Armstrong Preserve and documented seasonal change in the meadow community at Clark Preserve.  Nick's meadow study plots were inadvertantly mowed by the landscaping crew of a helpful and supportive neighbor, but he responded adaptively, as did many of the plants in the meadow, making for a true learning experience.  Nick's work will serve as a reference and guide for future projects to be completed at our preserves and on private properties with conservation goals.

Alizah is a rising senior at Fox Lane High School and has a vital interest in sustainability along with a strong work ethic.  She provided consistent support in our organic garden, helping with planning, mapping, seeding, weeding, harvesting, and bug-control.  She turned our compost and added it to the young and growing plants, watered when it was dry, and enthusiastically shared her learning with visitors to our garden.  Alizah's interactive garden map will be used to plan next year's rotation of spring, summer, and fall crops.

Volunteers Kadijah, Scott, and Luke assisted in all of these projects, filling in the gaps to carry us successfully through the summer.  Kadijah comes from an urban background and relished her time in the garden, absorbing information with spot-on precision.  Scott is intent on learning the ropes of preserve stewardship and continues to provide invaluable help with meadow and forestry projects.  Luke gained knowledge of landscape preservation in his hometown and helped to spread the word about our projects and the many events we host

What is the common denominator that drives these young people's efforts?  They are motivated by a desire to serve something greater than themselves, to provide for the greater good of their community and the larger world.  Several of them were involved in the Boy Scouts of America as youth, and some continue to be and wanted to pass on this inspirational message to our readers:

"In addition to teaching kids about basic plant and wildlife identification, Scouting engages youth to make the smallest impact possible on the outdoors, to respect the life they encounter, to understand the man aspects of a healthy and balanced ecosystem, and to take the initiative in taking care of the environment in and around their communities.  This summer, Pound Ridge's Scout 'Guy' completed a personal service project that earned him the rank of Eagle Scout, an achievement requiring hundreds of hours of service and self-directed commitment.  He erected an information kiosk on the Armstrong Preserve that will serve to educate visitors for many years.  Three of our other summer interns/volunteers were set on the path of environmental service through scouting and count their experience as a strong impetus for current engagement in conservation efforts.  The excellent work done this summer by volunteer Scouts is a testament to the core values shared by these two organizations, and the magnitude of an effect thay have on young people."

I would like to express my sincere appreciation for the help of all our volunteers and interns this summer.  I wish them the very best in their future endeavors within our community and beyond.


Tree Bark: Don't Take it for Granted

    It always comes as a surprise to me that the first signs of Fall appear now, at the end of August.  Sure, we can expect some more hot days, maybe even an Indian Summer, but the leaves are thinning out and beginning to drop already.  You may sense a change in the light, which our trees respond to by ceasing production of chlorophyll in their leaves, revealing to us the brilliant colors of fall.  Many of us wait for this time of year to find our favorite trees: we seek the red of oaks and cherry, the yellows of ash, hickory, birch, and poplar, or our real stunner, the red-orange-yellow leaves of the Sugar maple.  I invite you to join me in practicing your tree identification skills on a Guided Walk and Talk in one of our most beautiful protected forests, the Richard's Preserve on Saturday, October 19, from 10am to noon.  You can find information about other guided walks, and other preserves to visit, on our website

You don't need to wait for the leaves to turn to start looking at trees, however.  I have recently become fascinated by an aspect of trees that can be studied year-round, and with many stories to tell:  their bark.  Be it flaky, shaggy, craggy, or peeling, bark is an integral part of a tree's structure, much like the skin on your body.  It serves to protect the trees delicate inner layers, where sugars and nutrients flow from roots to tip and back again.  Native Americans used the bark of several tree species as powerful medecine, as well as for shelters and canoes.  Bark can also help us to identify a tree's species, for every one of our 60 or so species here has a distinctive look that a trained eye can discern.  This is especially useful in winter, or when the tree canopy is so high that we can't make out leaf shape. 

The evolution of tree bark into its many forms is due to the particular pressures that tree species encounter, or once encountered, in their ancestral habitats.  For example, the peeling, papery bark of birches is easily shed to rid the tree of epiphytic plants and mosses that tend to accumulate in the fog-shrouded forests where birches thrive.  In areas that are prone to fire, trees like the Pitch Pine grow thick bark at a young age to survive searing heat.  While thick bark serves to also deter many of the insects and fungi that parasitize trees, it also limits their expansion somewhat, and impedes photosynthesis.  Some trees, like Beech, do photosynthesize through their thin bark, and this gives them a head-start on leaf-out for the summer.  It also means that initials and such that are carved into Beech bark can last for the life of the tree, or hasten its demise by allowing entry of tree-killing pathogens. 

Trees other than Beech respond to wounding much like your skin does, by growing a thicker layer over the wound.  Study the scars on an old tree and you might find that it has withstood damage from hurricanes, fires, wire fencing, and even bear and buck rubbing.  Buck will rub their antlers on trees to help them shed their velvet.  With the overabundance of deer in southern New York, we find an abundance of Sugar maples afflicted by disease that enters through their wounded bark. 

In a healthy ecosystem, bucks and trees can coexist because of a natural balance, the same balance that keeps insects and fungi from killing the trees they need to live on.  Human impacts have altered our forest ecosystems in the Northeast to such an extent that equilibrium has been lost.  We now face the imminent loss of a number of cherished tree species, including Ash, Beech, and Eastern Hemlock, due to invasive insects that have surmounted the protective layer of bark and tunnel within. The top recommendation for controlling the spread of such invasives as the Emerald Ash Borer, Asian Long-horned beetle, and Hemlock Woolly Adelgid is to never move firewood across property boundaries.  Campgrounds such as Ward Pound Ridge Reservation now provide firewood as a deterrant to transporting it.  To report a sighting of an invasive insect in New York, or to learn more, click here

For more information about forestry, trees in general, and bark in particular, I highly recommend Northern Woodlands magazine, published quarterly by the Center for Northern Woodlands Education, Inc.  I can't rave enough about what an excellent resource this has been in my own education and teaching career.  Many thanks to Michael Wojtech, whose 2011 article on bark inspired me to look upon it in a whole new light.


Squashing the vine borer

Chances are that if you have a garden, you have at least one squash plant producing flowers and fruit right now.  At the Armstrong garden, we have zucchini, summer squash, acorn, butternut, hubbard, patty pan, giant pumpkin, mini-pumpkin, cukes, and melons, plus a few heirloom varieties that came to me without packaging.  That's a lot of squash! 
As an experienced organic gardener, I knew to expect the inevitable infestation of their vines by an insect known as the Squash vine borer.  The vine borer has probably wreaked havoc in your own garden.  Have you noticed a powdery orange-gold substance near holes at the base of your squash plants, along with wilting leaves?  That is "frass," and it marks the entry hole for the borer.  This complicated insect hatches from eggs that were laid at the base of young plants by a rather pretty looking moth that more resembles a beetle.  The eggs hatch into grubs, which crawl within the vines and feed there, sucking the life from your plants.  They will eventually metamorphose into the winged adult, which will then lay more eggs, either this year or next.  Unless, of course, you stop them.
I found a number of tips to help you protect your plants from the vine borer, which I list below, but I find this method works best:  wherever you see "frass," slit the vine along its length about an inch above and below the entry hole.  Old-timers will tell you to then insert a crochet hook into the vine to pull the grub out.  I use a piece of wire coat hanger with a bent tip (needle-nosed pliers work well to put a small curve at the end of your hanger).  I generally find one or two grubs per vine.  Sometimes there are multiple entry sites, and every one of them will have a grub or two hiding inside.  To help the plant recover from this "surgery," I pack some nice rich dirt over the wound.  The plants rebound nicely, continuing to yield tasty squash until the mildew takes over.  There are few organic remedies for mildew, but I'll have to leave that for another blog post.
Here is what you can do to protect squash plants from the vine borer:
Discard plants that cannot be saved: Don't put them in your compost or leave them lying around, or the larvae may grow into an adult and re-infect your squash next year. 
Use a floating row cover, or tin foil, or pantyhose.  Covering plants will prevent the adult moth from laying eggs where you don't want them.  Keep in mind that a row cover will also prevent bees, or any other pollinating insect, from reaching your plants.  You might try covering just the vine with foil or panty hose.
Set traps to know when they have emerged. You can tell when the squash vine borers are emerging by looking for the adults, or by setting a yellow bowl full of water in your garden.  The moths are attracted to the yellow, and get trapped in the water.  When you find one in your trap, you know it is time to take action against them. It is also a sign to start looking for eggs on the stems.
Plant vine crops that are usually not attacked by squash vine borers. Thinner vines make unsatisfactory homes for vine borers.  Try butternut squash, cucumbers, melons, and watermelons.
Hand pick and destroy eggs.  You won't get every egg though, I'll bet
A second planting of summer squash made in early July will mature after adult borers have finished laying eggs.  Areas with longer growing seasons might have two rounds of vine borers in a single season, but in New York this is a good method.
Till the soil in fall. Larvae that are brought close to the surface should freeze in winter.  Make sure to kill any grubs that you find while tilling.

Are you my Mother? A Cowbird in a Vireo Nest

Have you ever found an active bird nest?  Most nests are temporary structures, meant to house only one generation before they are left to the mites and lice that accumulate in them.  Even the most intricate and pain-staking nests are abandoned, except for those of raptors, who may reuse the same nest year after year. 


 Songbirds generally build more than one nest in a season, either to house successive broods or because one is damaged or predated.  Because they are often hidden, either high in treetops or low under thick cover, the best way to find nests may be to watch the birds that use them.  That is how I have been finding the nests around the Armstrong Education Center this summer.  Monitoring their progress has been a wonderful lesson in ecology for my daughter and I, one that I would like to share with you. I was observing wildlife around the vernal pool  at Armstrong when I found the first


nest, which was easy to see at eye-level in a young maple tree.  I would likely have missed it had the mother not flown off as I approached.  She was drab and not easily identifiable without a good head shot, so I tried to find out what she was by using the contents and make of her nest.

Some species make distinctively woven cups nests, like this one, while others make mud-and-stick structures, and still others use only cavities (the holes in trees).  On this date, June 17, there was only one egg in the nest: whitish with a little brown speckling on one end.  Over the next few days, more eggs appeared in the nest, but I didn't see the bird.  On June 21, I took the photo above, in which you can see that one egg is different: it is a Brown-headed cowbird egg.  Cowbirds are parasitic nesters, meaning that they do not make their own nests.  Instead, they drop a single egg into the unprotected nests of other species, leaving the chick to be raised by its "adoptive" parents.  I hadn't seen the host bird on the nest yet, but she won't sit until all of her eggs are laid, so that they incubate at the same rate and hatch at the same time.  That way, the chicks have less time to attract predators to the nest before they fledge. 

I was concerned about the cowbird egg in this nest.  Cowbirds are big, about the size of a robin, and this nest was quite small.  The parent, whoever it was would have a hard time feeding that big chick along with her three.  Sometimes the smaller, weaker chicks are kicked out of the nest by the fast-developing Cowbird.  I used a website run by Cornell's Lab of Ornithology to match the characteristics I had observed to likely candidates.  I narrowed in on the Red-eyed vireo, a small forest bird that is very common in our area.

I had heard them singing all day for weeks, from high in the treetops, and I was surprised to learn that they generally nest much lower in the canopy, at a height of about 6 feet.  You might have read in an earlier blog post, Late Spring Serenade, that birds sing to proclaim and protect nesting territory, thereby guaranteeing a food source for their young.  I spied her on the nest on June 22, and she sat through June 26 (while her partner kept up his singing).

The saga of the Vireo nest was not lost on my eight-year old daughter, who once cried to me during a night-time thunderstorm, "can't we go put more branches out over the mother?"  She was determined to take action against the cowbird egg.  I tried to explain to her that human ideals of justice do not always apply in the natural world.  Cowbirds do not make nests, not because they are lazy but because they evolved another strategy for survival, and they simply don't know how to make nests of their own.  Without an occasional egg drop in a Vireo nest, we wouldn't have Cowbirds to enrich the web of life.  That is difficult to understand for a child who does not especially care about something called a Cowbird.  We went down to have a look at the nest.  The mother was not about, and I lifted her up to look inside.  Three chicks lay nestled within, pulsing with new life!  We could only watch in wonder at their fragile strength, up against such a tough world.


 On June 27, one of the Vireo eggs remained unhatched, and the Cowbird chick was perhaps twice as big as either of the other chicks.  The next day, the fourth egg had hatched.  The day after that, the Cowbird chick appeared about three times bigger than the others, and held its mouth open far above them.  There was a lot of activity at the nest, with the parents flying in to feed them, so we went less often so as not to disturb them.  On day four, July 1, there were still four chicks in the nest.  On July 3, there were only two Vireo chicks left, and they looked too young to fledge.  We searched the surrounding area and did not find any on the ground.  On July 5, just one week after hatching, the nest was empty!

We hope they all made it.  Red-eyed vireos and Cowbirds are two highly successful species in our habitat, evidenced by a second pair of vireos currently nesting by the Armstrong's garden in another young maple tree.  They have three perfect eggs in their nest, and the female is now sitting. 


Salamanders of Westchester County, New York

Salamanders of Westchester County, New York
The northeastern region of the United States is home to vast numbers of a creature that many of us have never seen: the elusive, generally nocturnal, salamander. Our forest floors teem with these colorful animals on rainy warm nights, when they come out from underground and stream hideouts to prowl for insect prey. Salamanders are environmentally sensitive creatures and are considered to be indicators of forest ecosystem health, but they lack a voice (literally) and exist mostly outside of our consciousness. To protect them, we must remain conscious of their habitat requirements and preserve the conditions that foster them as an integral part of our forest web.
The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation offers opportunities for you to be involved in finding and recording the presence of wildlife, including a Citizen Science project to document salamander migration routes. They recently completed an inventory of amphibian and reptile species using input from thousands of citizen scientists over a ten years span. The Herp Atlas of New York documented twelve salamander species in Westchester County. One is considered to be endangered: the Northern dusky salamander, which inhabits rocky woodland streams. One of the most common, the Eastern newt, is often mistaken for a lizard in its juvenile life stage, and for an entirely different animal in its adult form (see pictures below).

As an aide to you in your search to discover these fascinating animals, I will summarize key points of the natural history of Westchester’s salamanders. I will group them into two main groups: those that are most often found in or near streams, and those that are more associated with woodland pools and deciduous forest floors. Salamanders are a type of amphibian, meaning that they breed in water. However, some of our local amphibian species bypass the aquatic larval stage, no longer relying upon wetlands for breeding, and most species can be found away from water at some point in their lives. For help with identification, I suggest this field guide: The Amphibians and Reptiles of New York State (2007).

I invite you to join me this Saturday (June 29) at 10am at the Halle Ravine Preserve for a Guided Walk and Talk focusing on amphibians and reptiles of the area!

Salamanders Commonly Found in or Near Streams in Southern New York

Northern red salamander (Pseudotriton r. ruber)
• Found in springs, brooks, nearby woods and meadows
• In leaf litter or under rocks
• Lays 50-100 eggs in fall

Northern slimy salamander (Plethodon glutinosis)
• Found on forest floodplain, ravine slopes
• Under flat rocks and rotten logs (nocturnal)
• Lays 6-36 eggs in rotting logs or underground

Four-toed salamander (Hemidactylium scutatum)
• Found in bogs, streams, floodplains, associated with sphagnum moss
• Under stones, in leaf litter in bog forests
• Lays about 50 eggs singly attached to moss or plants, close to water, in spring

Northern spring salamander (Gyrinophilus porphyriticus) northern subspecies
• Found in springs and mountain brooks
• Nocturnal, may prowl in rain
• Lays 11-100 eggs singly attached to undersides of stones in cool water

Northern Two-lined Salamander (Eurycea bislineata)
• Found along rocky brooks, river swamps, also in damp forest
• Life history still relatively unknown!
• Lays 12-100 eggs underwater in one layer, attached to rocks or plants, in spring

Northern Dusky Salamander (Desmognathus fuscus) * endangered in Westchester County
• Found in or along edges of rocky wooded creeks, springs
• Lays 12-36 eggs in grape-like cluster near water beneath rocks or in logs, in late spring
• The female stays and broods the nest

Salamander Associated with Woodland “Vernal” Pools and surrounding Forested Areas
These species breed in pools but may be found on or under the ground some distance from water.

Marbled salamander (Ambystoma opacum)
• Lays 50-200 eggs in a depression in Fall which later fills with water
• The female usually guards her eggs

Spotted salamander (Ambystoma maculatum)
• Lives underground, may be found in hardwood forest
• Lays cluster of 100 eggs attached to submerged branches in ponds, in March and April

Blue-spotted salamander (Ambystoma laterale)
• Found in deciduous forest
• Lays 6-10 eggs singly or in a small cluster, on pond bottoms, in April or May

Jefferson salamander (Ambystoma jeffersonianum)
• Found in deciduous forest, under debris near water
• Lays 10-20 cylindrical masses of 15 eggs apiece, attached to slim submerged twigs in ponds.
• Our earliest breeder, they migrate to pools in March when snow may still be on the ground.

Other Salamanders (and the most commonly found)

Northern red-backed salamander (Plethodon c. cinereus)
• Found in moist forest, coniferous and hardwood
• Lays 6-12 eggs under stones or in logs

Eastern newt (Notophthalmus viridescens)
• Also known as the Red-spotted newt, it has one of the most complicated life histories, having three distinct body forms depending on its developmental stage. Adults are aquatic and live in almost any unpolluted waters.
• Their eggs develop into a larval aquatic stage resembling a tadpole, which then undergoes metamorphosis to become an entirely terrestrial juvenile – little orange “efts.” These spend 2-5 years in forest litter and are often mistaken for a separate species from the gilled parents.

Late Spring Serenade

Late Spring Serenade

I have been settling into the swing of things at the Armstrong House for a few weeks now and I find my attention consistently drawn outside.  At any time of day, morning or night, there are the chirps, trills, and calls that signal nature’s most abundant season.  Who might there be, serenading outside your window? 

Don’t assume that your troubadour is a bird, unless it is morning.  As you probably know from experience, birds tend to sing early in the morning, with gusto, and then remain quiet the rest of the day.  Most sing only during their breeding season, late April through July, to attract mates and also to defend their nesting territory from competition from other birds.  A well-protected nesting territory ensures food for developing young.  Alarm calls (which are very different from songs), are used by either sex and at any time of day or year.  On a recent morning at the Armstrong Preserve, I heard American robin, Black and white warbler, Chipping sparrow, Downy woodpecker, Eastern wood-pewee and Tufted titmouse.  In the evenings, a bird called the Veery sings a descending ethereal tune.  Northern red cardinals may sing at any time of day, or year, in our area.

Chances are you have birds around your property, but they are not the only songsters out there.  You may be hearing trills from the Common gray tree frog this month, which many people mistake for a bird.  Tree frogs are nocturnal and generally very secretive, spending most of their lives high in the tree tops.  At this time of year, adult male frogs call in the evening (click here to hear it).  When spring rains fill their breeding pools, like our vernal pool here at the Armstrong Education Center, the frogs descend to lay and fertilize their eggs in the water.  Tate wrote about two other frogs that depend upon vernal pools in the May 25, 2013 post of this blog.  They were the Wood frog and Northern spring peeper, and peepers can still be heard early this month.  If you would like to learn more about these fascinating animals, join us on Saturday, June 29, 2013 for a guided nature walk  at one of our preserves in Pound Ridge, Halle Ravine.  If you have a wetland on your property or an interest in preserving these valuable habitats, please attend our Land Stewardship in Action Workshop on Saturday, November 2, 2013 (location to be announced on our website).


  • The Common gray tree frog lives in forest, even suburban forests, where vernal pools are present.

  • They can be gray, green, brown, or nearly black, and measure up to 2 inches long.

  • Tree frogs change color for better camouflage against tree bark.




Another source of beautiful music (to the trained ear, perhaps) are the insects.  Like birds and frogs, insects call only during the brief window of their specific breeding season.  So far, we have heard the Spring field cricket, a species of katydid, and a few different grasshoppes.  In other parts of New York, Cicadas are making big news (and big noise).  For information about the current cicada emergence, click here. Many of us associate these sounds with hot summer nights, but by summer, our current singers will be replaced by later-breeding species such as the Snowy tree cricket.  Their “chirp rate,” or song speed varies with temperature, and old-timers and naturalists can often guess the date by who is singing from the treetops.  Join us for a fun Friday night at the Armstrong Preserve,  July 19, 2013 for a guided tour of the sounds of Summer.









Watch a video of the Snowy tree cricket singing here

I hope you have enjoyed this musical tour of our local woodlands, and I hope it inspires you to spend a few minutes listening out your own window. Consider that each and every member of this chorus is integral to the great hum of life, and requires healthy, intact habitats to survive.  Rachel Carson, the renowned biologist and conservationist, wrote in Silent Spring, “The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction.”  Like the taste of a peach in summer, these sounds can bring you back to simpler times and to a stronger connection with the natural world.

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