Sunday, December 28, 2014

An Illustrated Life List: Hairy Woodpecker

Sara, the kids, and I took an after dark walk at Silverwood Park last week.  No particular reason, other than to get outside and enjoy some unusually warm weather.  Of course, in the the back of my mind I had a few subsidiary reasons; first among them was to see an owl.  Maybe even something on the unusual side like a Saw-whet Owl, or a Long-eared Owl, or very out of range Boreal Owl. . . ok, maybe not.  But I was definitely looking for something in the Strigidae family.

Which I didn't find.  But I did run into something unexpected.  A Hairy Woodpecker, Picoides villosus in a Bluebird house.  I saw it because I was going to open up the house to look for mice, who often inhabit bird houses that aren't closed up for the winter.  My youngest daughter has been very interested in mice recently, even writing a report or two at school, so I thought it would be a nice supplement to her school work to see a wild mouse.  But before I even touched the house, a Hairy Woodpecker poked it's head out.  I was using my phone as a light (to see the anticipated mice better), so I got a pretty good look.  Naomi and Adele were right behind me, so they got a pretty good look too.  The woodpecker looked uncertain so I turned the light off to minimize our disturbance.  I called Sara over, but she declined, preferring to let the woodpecker go back to sleep.  Good choice!

Sunday, December 21, 2014

How We Experience the Winter Solstice

Today at 5:03 am CST is the winter solstice.  It's the time when if you where somewhere along the Tropic of Capricorn, the sun would be directly overhead; or as my wife Sara taught her students this week, the perpendicular rays of the sun fall on you.  The Tropic of Capricorn is as far south as the sun will ever appear directly overhead.  This is a bit abstract for many of us.  We'll experience the winter solstice in the following ways in the northern hemisphere, and more specifically in Minnesota:

  • it's the shortest day of the year.  For us in Minnesota, we'll have 8 hours and 46 minutes of daylight.
  • the sun is at lowest point it'll reach in the sky at "noon".
  • the sun rises and sets the farthest to the south.
Then starting tomorrow, the sun slowly starts to climb higher in to the sky, and the days slowly get longer.  The sun also starts to rise closer to due east each day and sets closer to due west each day, as we approach the spring equinox in March.

Of course this is a relative description of what is happening, the earth is the one doing the moving compared to the sun; all these changes are due to the tilt of the earth, and the change of this tilt relative to the sun as it travels around the sun.

I hope you enjoy the solstice!

(note: no attempts at historical accuracy were made in the above depictions of holidays associated with the solstice)

Monday, December 15, 2014

Watching a Lunar Eclipse

Though stated at the top of every post that this blog is "Part journal . . ." it's been never been the most prominent feature.   It's usually more  recognizable as a field guide.  Or as a phenological record, which does shares some characteristics of a journal, but not in the "dear diary" sense.  But today I'll venture into the "Part journal . . ." part of the blog, as in the journal as a personal record sense of the word.

The picture above is of my daughters, Naomi and Adele sitting at the end of the walk of our NE Minneapolis house, very early in the morning this fall to watch the end of a lunar eclipse.  They were very excited to see it, and got outside as quickly as possible; Adele went out bare footed and in pajamas despite the unseasonable cold (but she has inherited the barefoot gene that seems to run in the family so not unexpected).  They sat outside until the moon disappeared below the horizon, longer than I was willing to tolerate the cold, at least before coffee was consumed.

I came across a photo of the event on my phone earlier this week.  I thought it would be fun to do my own version and to try out a new (to me) art app on my iPad called Procreate.  Recently, most of the art I've posted has been created by doing a pencil or pen sketch, than scanning the sketch, and adding color with GIMP software.  It's a process that has worked well for me, but I don't always feel like sitting at a desk to work, GIMP is desktop only. Instead I prefer the backyard, neighborhood coffee shop, or just lounging on the couch with one or more family members.  To give myself more flexibility in my work location, I decided to try out one of the many art apps available for iPads.  After a bit of research, I decided on Procreate.  I have found it to be very conducive to sketching, working and reworking a picture, and general trial and error

At one point while working on this picture my kids took a look and asked why I made a picture of myself on an alien planet looking at a large purple pot. Cool idea, and not an unlikely picture for me to make, but maybe posted at my one man, anonymous blackish metal band site.  But not what I had intended.  I guess some reworking was in order, but I think the final result works well.

Another cool thing about Procreate is it automatically saves each step of your work in the form of a video.  So you can see this same picture when it more resembled me looking at a purple pot on an alien planet.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

A Blue Colored Grey Tree Frog

The blue frog pictured above is a Grey Tree Frog, Hyla versicolor or H. chrysocelis.  They are not usually blue (but they are not always grey either), but develop a bluish cast when they freeze for their winter hibernation.  This particular one is really vibrant, the man who first found it on a sidewalk thought it was a toy at first glance. 

They are a lot of insects that hibernate in a frozen or partially frozen state, but not many vertebrates, all of them terrestrial frogs (that I know of).  Not only is freezing a seemingly death defying feat, but the adaptations employed to avoid permanent damage would kill most other animals.

There's a really excellent article written by Janet M. Storey at NatureNorth that explains the process in detail and in easy to understand language.  There's a section on freeze tolerance in frogs in the book "Life in the Cold" by Peter J. Marchand (read it if you are at all interested in how animals and plants survive winter, you'll be more smarter if you do).  So I'm not going to explain the process in detail, just outline some key points, and . . . an animated version of freezing in Grey Tree Frogs!
  • Grey Tree Frogs hibernate under leaves, which offer very little protection from cold and ice.
  • The changes in a Grey Tree Frog's body only begin when ice actually starts to form in the frogs body.  Most animals anticipate the onset of freezing temperatures through environmental cues by experiencing changes in their physiology and/ or behavior.
  • Freezing is limited to spaces outside of cells, leaving organs and tissues intact when the frog thaws in the spring.
  • When ice starts to form, the liver starts producing glycerol.  The glycerol aids the frog in possibly three ways: by lowering the freezing point of cells, by strengthening cell membranes, and by reducing cellular dehydration.  The first two help prevent the structural damage that can be caused by ice (think frost bite), the third helps with the fact that with all he water frozen outside of the cell, the water in the cell will flow "downhill", (osmotically speaking).
  • The formation of ice also starts he heart beating faster, which seems counter intuitive; Grey Tree Frogs are cold-blooded so their metabolism should slow down with lowering temperatures.  This would be true if the frog was just experiencing a temperature decrease, but it is also freezing.  When a liquid turns into a solid, there is a release of heat.  It's not a lot, but with a Grey Tree Frog's small body it is enough to get the heart pumping faster than normal.  This allows the glycerin to be distributed quickly in the frog's body.
  • When about 60% of the frog's body is frozen (up to 20 hours later), the heart stops pumping, and the little metabolism that occurs does so without oxygen.  The Grey Tree Frog will remain this way until temperatures rise above freezing, at which point it will thaw out and shortly resume normal activities.
(note: the video my not appear on mobile devices.  You can try this link if that's the case)

Friday, November 28, 2014

An Illustrated Life List: Tundra Swans

My favorite spot to watch for Tundra Swans, Cygnus columbianus may seem a little unusual; it's the NE Minneapolis neighborhood I live.  Every year I usually hear and/ or see one flock go by, usually at night, and more often in the spring.  It's one of my favorite signs marking the passage of the seasons.  Seeing them at night gives them a somewhat ghostly or other worldly cast. The passing flock's calls sound wild and out of place in the city.

I don't think I've ever seen Tundra Swans on the ground or swimming in Minneapolis, just migrating past.  But I can be a pretty lazy birder, maybe a swan or two that I have identified as a Trumpeter Swan, C. buccinator has actually been a Tundra Swan - they can be difficult to tell apart.  If I see a flock of swans in the spring or fall I call them Tundra Swans (they usually give themselves away by their call).  If I see a pair, anytime of the year, I call them Trumpeter Swans.  I did a little research on the eBird site to see if this generalization is supported by the observations of others.  I compared year-round sightings of the two swan species in Hennepin County.  The data seems to support my generalization: Trumpeter Swans are seen more often, in smaller numbers, and throughout the year.  Tundra Swan sightings are most likely in the spring and fall and in larger groups.  Of course this is a simplification of the data presented at eBird, but it I think it gives some credibility to my lazy swan identification.

Visit the Distracted Naturalist Red Bubble site for more Illustrated Life List artwork

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Dark Fishing Spider Exoskeleton


I found this Dark Fishing Spider (Dolomedes tenebrosus) exoskeleton under a sink a few weeks ago.  Spiders have to periodically shed their exoskeletons, the hard outer layer of their body as they grow. 

I think the exoskeleton gives an interesting perspective on how a spider's body is arranged.  Below, a short discussion of a spiders various parts, color coded for your convenience.

One of the two main sections of a spider’s body.  It’s where the most of the spider’s internal organs are located.  The exoskeleton of the abdomen is pretty soft and flexible and isn’t well preserved.

The other main section of a spider’s body.  I’m amazed at how well many details have been preserved in the shed exoskeleton.  It’s seems like shedding an exoskeleton should be a traumatic experience with only broken remnants left behind, but from the exoskeleton in the photograph, it appears the spider just unhooked a little latch, lifted its carapace up, and skipped away.  The carapace is the top portion of the cephalothorax, the underside is called the sternum.

(Maybe a future post on how the molting actually proceeds).

Spiders have up to eight eyes.  The number, size, shape, and arrangement of the eyes can be a good clue to the spider’s family.  Spider eyes are labeled as follows.

PLE       Posterior Lateral Eyes
PME      Posterior Median Eyes
ALE      Anterior Lateral Eyes
AME     Anerior Median Eyes

Fishing Spiders are in the family Pisauridae.  This family of spiders generally has eyes that are arranged in two rows of four, with PME eyes that are slightly larger.  The P (posterior) row curve back.  Fishing Spiders are often mistaken for Wolf Spiders (family Lycosidae), but Wolf Spiders have three rows of eyes and noticeably larger PME eyes. 

Often known as a spider's jaws.  In the photograph, they are easy to spot because they are the darkest part of the exoskeleton.  Like most spiders, a Fishing Spider's chelicerae move side to side, like a pair of scissors.  They hold prey and guide it to the small mouth parts located behind the chelicerae (not visible)  The tips of the chelicerae have fangs that are used to inject venom into prey.  They do not suck the fluid of their prey from their fangs.

These are the leg like appendages on either side of the jaws.  The base of the pedipalps is actually part of the spider’s mouth structure and may aid in holding or crushing prey.  Male pedipalps are enlarged at the ends and used during mating to transfer sperm to the females.  Sometimes mention is made of the pedipalps being used for sensing too.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Backyard Native Weeds: Pennsylvania Pellitory

Pennsylvania Pellitory, Parietaria pensylvanica is an easy plant to overlook.  There's not much about it appearances to separate it from the crowd.  In fact, it mostly resembles a diminutive Stinging Nettle, Urtica dioca.  Which is no really no surprise, they are both members of the Nettle Family, Urticaceae.  Like Stinging Nettle, the leaves of Pennsylvania Pellitory have small hairs.  However they do not sting.  And also like Stinging Nettle, it is edible.  I tried the leaf of a plant growing in our backyard.  The taste was actually quite good, very cucumber-like.  But way to rough, it left a scratchy feel on my tongue for a bit.  Maybe if it was cooked briefly.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Mushroom Log - late September 2014

Destructive Pholiota - Pholiota destruens
A scruffy mushroom found growing on the logs of cottonwood and other species of Populus.  I have seen it most often growing out of the cut end of cottonwood logs.
Blewit - Clitocybe nuda

Gem-studded Puffball - Lycoperdon perlatum

Frosty Funnel - Clitocybe phyllophila

Unknwon mushroom
 Hen of the Woods - Grifola frondosa


Saturday, September 20, 2014

Mushroom Log - mid September 2014

Purple-spored Puffball - Calvatia cyanthiformis

Purple-gilled Laccaria - Laccaria ochropurpurea

Leather-veiled Bolete - Paragyrodon sphaerosporus

Unknown Entoloma - Entoloma sp.

Unknown Bolete

Monday, September 8, 2014

Cultured Fungus: Giant Puffball Fritters

This weekend I lead a Family Mushroom Hunting program at Westwood Hills Nature Center.  On the agenda was mushroom sampling.  I didn't have much, some Morels (Morchella sp) and a Giant Puffball (Calvatia gigantea).  Though Giant Puffballs make quite an impression visually, I think they are pretty disappointing gastronomically.  So what to do to make it a crowd pleaser?

I started looking through the meager food supplies at the nature center; mostly left-overs from other programs.  Let's see, lots of ice cream forgotten by birthday party programs . . . a gallon or so of Taco Bell sauce, in individual packets . . . ketchup . . . hmm . . . nope expired last year . . .pasta sauce, not expired . . . ah, but already opened and moldy.  Lots of pancake mix left over from maple syrup programs . . . and lots of maple syrup.  Hey (picture a bioluminescent mushroom lighting up over my head)!  Puffball fritters dipped in maple syrup!

Thus begins the culinary adventure.  Above, puffballs dipped in batter, being fried in butter.

Browning in the butter.  Actually it was tough to get them browned on the camp stove, not a lot of control over temperature.  So they mostly got burnt, or just stayed kind of gooey.

They looked ok, but I started having my doubts.  Have you ever had a dinner party, gotten the brilliant idea to try out a new, unusual recipe, maybe show-off your skills in the kitchen - only to realize as the guests arrived that this particular recipe probably should have been given a trial run; that you've created a minor food disaster?

I hesitantly prepared to try one, something about them emanated distastefulness.  Maybe like breading and frying a slug; it looks ok, but you know it's going to be gross.  I dipped it in some maple syrup. and bit in.  The syrup was good.  And the batter was good enough.  But than I got to the puffball part.  The taste was somewhere between moderately ok and mostly disagreeable.  And the texture was only a few degrees above that of green peas (which if you know me, you know green peas make me retch).  Now what to do, I had ruined half of my mushroom sampler!

Best to confess to my error and apologize.  I told the program participants the story, and that they didn't have to feel obligated to try a puffball fritter.  And that if they did try one, I wouldn't be offended if they spit it out.

So after a successful and enjoyable mushroom hunt and id session we went inside for the sample plate.  I waited nervously, but noticed that people seemed to be enjoying the puffball fritters, and to my disbelief, went back for seconds! 

In the end, the puffball fritter dish was empty, the crowds left pleased, and I was relieved that all had turned out well.  And oddly enough, there were a few morels left over. 
The author contemplates an unusually large Giant Puffball.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Mushroom Log - early September 2014

Bleeding Mycena - Mycena haematopus
Named the Bleeding Mycena because it exudes a reddish juice when crushed.  Presented here at three stages: above, in middle-age.
Young and fresh.
Way old.

Fused Marasmius - Marasmius cohaerens

Some features I found helpful in separating this mushroom from other LBMs:
  • flat to slight bell-shaped (umbonate) cap.
  • growing in clumps in the on the ground in mixed woods.
  • a stem that starts out light brown at the top, fades to reddish in the middle, and finally to a dark brown at the bottom.
  • dense mycelium at the base of the stem, forming sort of a pad.
  • Under a microscope, the gill tissue sported prominent spike-shaped structures known as cystidia. Cystidia are non-spore producing cells found on the gills of many species of mushrooms.  They come in variety of shapes and can be useful in identification.  Their function is unknown.  My microscopy skills are still quite rudimentary, but these things really stood out.
Clitocybe candicans

Unknown mushroom

Psathyrella sp?
The black spore print and two-tone cap points towards these little mushrooms being members of the genus Psathyrella.  They were growing on a recently wood chipped trail.

Fiber Head - Inocybe sp.

Unknown Amanita - Amanita sp.