Saturday, January 31, 2009

Heaven Bound

Cold and windy today.
Promises of warmth and sun tomorrow.
I worked through the window.

I worked hard with birds today. Used my better lens, even if it's not quite as long. It's faster and the extra light helped me focus. Very rewarding as I refine existing birds and pick up new species. Cardinal, Nuthatch, and a very cool Woodpecker making appearances in the coming week.

Adobe products are awesome. I am studying and practicing and having a terribly huge amount of fun.

Oh, the new look? Ya, I've wished for a blackened background for some time but simply didn't have the nerve. I think I like it.

By now, we are quite familiar with the Tufted Titmouse. They really are little angels around here, very sweet and friendly. More on them as I continue work with flight and motion.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Planning Ahead

I'm again low on specimen photos, but the weekend has arrived and it looks like the weather will accommodate--just a bit of snow expected tonight; Sunday should climb above freezing.

I'll be collecting branch tips to photograph leaf scar and bud characteristics and hopefully make some easy identifications. It won't be long before spring arrives and I'd like to document bud growth as we move into the new season. With February right around the corner, it's within reason to hold spring-like optimism. Isn't it?

Until then, here's a recent shot across the lake.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Cones Concluded

I made it to that clump of Red Cedars just at sunset. Noticing that some trees were without female cones, I bounded through a snowbank in pursuit of a male cone. No matter where I looked, I could not find even one. I checked the ground in case they'd dropped. Nada. I broke off a small branch to later assure myself that these were all Red Cedars. Sure enough, the branches were squared off nicely, indicating Red and not White Cedar.

Back home, while looking closely at my branch, I noticed some tips were browned and rather different from the greened tips. Cones! Here were the male cones! They are absolutely tiny and really just look like the end of a branch.

Now for a bit of botanical terminology. Cones are known as strobili (plural, that is). The male cone is called the microstrobilus or pollen cone, while the female is the megastrobilus, seed cone, or ovulate cone.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Conifers and Cones

Here's a young Red Cedar to bring us in on a clarification of cones. It seems that the 'berries' illustrated in an earlier Red Cedar post might better be called cones. Whether male or female, it's common to refer to conifer reproductive components as cones. Cones for conifers. Makes sense. Of course, like anything else, there are exceptions. The berry-like female cones of the yew are called arils.

I'm familiar with Eastern White Pine and Pitch Pine female cones but I never really considered genders. Now that I think about it, I do remember the White Pine's male cones. When the wind blows, the pollen can come off in thick yellow clouds.

The Red Cedars are dioecious--there are separate male and female plants. I'll be on the lookout for a male Red Cedar. I remember seeing a group about twelve feet tall and I think only some of them had female cones.

Plant biology is so interesting! Here are a couple of books from my library that are extremely informative and entertaining:

Plant Form by Adrian D. Bell with drawings by Alan Bryan. The line drawings are absolutely wonderful--beautiful detail with stippling that I admire so much. There is also a lot of excellent photography by the author.

Introductory Plant Biology by Kingsley R. Stern. I don't know that I'll ever get through it all but there are plenty of color photos and illustrations.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Song Sparrow

It wasn't until tonight that I could identify by name the Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia. It's the streaked chest with a centered dot that makes for a good ID.

This rather common bird is known for its persistent singing. I'm sure I've heard it many times but never attributed it to our little friend here. I wonder about how often I might gloss over my natural world, and yet, I think I'm coming around to greater appreciation.

As you can see here, the Song Sparrow is a ground forager. Behavior is so curious and unique. For instance, I cannot remember seeing titmice and chickadees on the ground--always on the feeder or in the trees. I'll be paying more attention.

I try to mask the technical details but I do have to mention some recent picture quality. I don't have a long enough telephoto for these little birds and I need to work on exposure with all this snow. This means that I'm doing extensive cropping and recovery, especially with this shot. I have my eye on a fantastic quality telephoto zoom. I'll have it soon enough, once I get over the price tag!

Monday, January 26, 2009

Mourning Dove

I'd planned to attempt a clarification on cones and conifers (after having somewhat botched the Red Cedar) but am enthusiastically dodging that endeavor this evening. A dear friend mentioned a fondness for bird photos and I did have this lovely creature in the wings. (Ya, I know...) :-)

A couple of weeks ago we took a peek at three roosting doves. It's not uncommon to have three to five doves hanging out in the crabapples--from sunrise to dusk. I thought they might be night roosting there but they tweak off around the house come dark. I say tweak because they make an unusual almost squeaking sound with their wings.

I think this dove is a lady. The gents have some blue on the crown and pink on the chest. Doesn't she look so very different from the gang in the tree--all so fluffed up? And once they're on the ground, they are quite perky.

Okay, I'm a romantic, and maybe that's why I like Mourning Doves so much. They construct their nest together. He collects; she builds. They take turns setting on their clutch of two eggs. Now, with all this loving devotion and attention, it'd be rather unclear how a nest can end up with a clutch of three or four, but sometimes a female lays in another's nest! This does tend to spin the romantic ideal, I suppose... But nothin's perfect, right?

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Red Cedar

It's cold! When will the temperature move above freezing? Maybe in a few days, when more snow comes in.

I guess that's my segue to excuses why I don't have more and better photo material. I am simply not into clambering over snowbanks in the cold! Okay, with the grumbling over... ;-)

Here's a shot of yesterday's cedar, nestled under an Eastern White Pine. I've read that this cedar, loaded with berries, is a female. The males have tiny tan colored pollen structures. Today I spotted quite a few Red Cedars around the lake but didn't get close enough to determine gender. I find it so entertaining that when I gain a new identification, that I can then find so many examples of that specie.

I am humbled when I look across a section of the lake's shoreline and realize how few species I can identify. I wonder just how many there will be when I feel that I'm closing in on the whole environment? I can't even begin to guess!

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Red Cedar

Here are some berries on a branch of Eastern Red Cedar, Juniperus virginiana. From a distance, the berries have a bluish bloom but close up (~5x) we can see the color variations.

I wasn't sure if this was White or Red cedar as I remember only knowing the difference from heartwood coloration. Now I know that Red will have squared evergreen scaly twigs while White's will be more flattened. The twigs are quite small and an easy trick is to roll them between the fingers. Also, Red has the berries we see here while White has some little cones instead.

I didn't have my camera with me when I took this sample so a full tree shot will be forthcoming.

I am wondering why these berries are still around. Do the local birds not care for them? Will the migrants like them?

Friday, January 23, 2009


Lots of folks call the Northern Junco, Junco hyemalis, the Snowbird.

Groups of a half dozen or so frequent the spilled seed under the feeder. I also throw down a millet mix that they seem to like.

I saw my second hawk in the yard this morning--a beautiful silver and black flecked bird somewhat larger than a Blue Jay. I fumbled for the camera, then found I couldn't get a shot off. No CF card in the camera! By the time I was finally ready, my quarry was long gone. Ah well, no worries. I will be better prepared next time.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Greenbriar Berries

Here's a bunch of Greenbriar berries, probably about 2.5x. This is a recent shot, perhaps surprising at this time of year. Why haven't the birds cleaned these up?

Maybe it's because these fruit have lower fat and nutritional value than other fruits. It's no matter, for come Spring as the Gray Catbirds migrate back into the area, they will devour these berries.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009


The Black-Capped Chickadee, Parus atricapillus, was studied by Margaret C. Brittingham and Stanley A. Temple of the University of Wisconsin. They determined that backyard feeding does not affect survivability or create dependency. (Have you ever felt guilty when your feeders were empty?)

They also found that Chickadees fed from feeders were still obtaining four fifths of their feeding from natural sources, such as insect eggs and larvae, arthropods, and seeds.

Note that this study applies only to the Chickadee, and in particular to its year round residency. The authors note that migratory birds may benefit more from supplemental feeding, being not familiar with the locality.

The usual gang of titmice and chickadees just blew through, picking up an afternoon snack. It's good to know that my feeding didn't hurt, might have helped, and certainly brought me closer to the local wildlife.

See here for the complete article from which I drew a few facts.

Storm Has Passed

Another storm passed through in waves on Sunday leaving about a foot of new snow. Any smaller specimens are becoming more and more buried!

No matter, these conditions create opportunities. There are new software and hardware tools to become more familiar with. I shot this without getting out of the warm car. (I'm really not ready for snowshoes and backpack, but this thought did come to mind...)

Earlier, across the lake from the above shot (in my yard, actually), was a little one digging out a cache of sunflower seeds.

Monday, January 19, 2009


It's exciting to think about the prospect of capturing plants portraits throughout their seasonal cycles, seeing the beauty in each stage of growth.

Sometimes I have a bit of knowledge of the specimen, like with the Common Milkweed, Asclepias syriaca, so the ID is easy. No matter, there is always so much to learn about each creature.

As a kid, I've broken leaves to see the milk bleed. I've split the pods before they're ready to see the silk-like seed parachutes still forming. And of course, I've tossed the ready seeds to the wind.

I knew that milkweed always came back each year in the same spots. What I didn't know is that this perennial grew from horizontal underground stems. Oh, and notice the wisteria twining its way around the milkweed stalk. That's the same wisteria from yesterday's post. These plants were a few feet apart.

I'm reading fascinating accounts of the tremendous number of insect species that frequent this plant. At this point, that's about all I can say. If I thought the world of plants was complex, the insect word must be truly mind boggling! Plants first, bugs later...

Sunday, January 18, 2009


Chinese Wisteria, Wisteria sinensis, is a hardy woody vine. It's probably best known for its lovely lavender flowers. Here we see a good crop of seed pods about 6 to 8 inches long. The picture may not do justice to the velvety smooth furry surface of the pods. I must grab a few for a closer study.

Wisteria can be trained as a hedge, as I have in my yard. In its wilder state, it's likely to actually strangle a tree with its massive girdling vines--reminding me of a boa constrictor strangling its prey. Last year I released a tree from one such attacker.

This identification took a bit of sleuthing. American Wisteria has smooth pods. Japanese flowers open progressively and Chinese open all at once. I seem to remember flowers fully in bloom so I think what we have here is the Chinese Wisteria. Once again, The Shrub Identification Book comes in handy!

Saturday, January 17, 2009


Common Mullein, Verbascum thapsus, may be my first listed biennial. Its first year, the velvety leaves grow close to the ground. The next year a stalk shoots up to open its yellow flowers a bit at a time. The stalks stand throughout the winter. This seed head is over a foot tall and the whole stalk is over four feet high.

Each Mullein spike may produce 150,000 seeds and seeds can remain ready for action for 100 years! The only thing holding them back is the Goldfinch's love of these seeds.

With a day off and the temperature climbing into the teens, I was able to get out around the lake and pick up new specimens like our Mullein above. This shot was from what I call the back of the lake. It's really not the back (the back is way off the right side of this shot) but as far as the road goes.

The lake is so peaceful this time of year--mostly ice fishermen. Just a few noisy skimobiles.

I'm now labeling plants with an '_alien' or '_native' designation. The underline will float these to the top of the index. I'll be going back over previous posts and updating each entry.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Buttonbush, Books, Biggest, and Brightest

It's just so exciting to identify an unknown creature. Yesterday's mystery, Buttonbush, Cephalanthus occidentalis, was solved with the aid of my new book, The Shrub Identification Book. Remember? This was the book made famous in the mystery shrub case? Although not those nice line drawings that I like so much, the black and white life size photos do get out the features that work so well for me.

I've recently delved into the work of wildlife biologist John Eastman, author of The Book of Swamp and Bog. One can hardly open this book to any page and not find a wonderful pen and ink sketch nicely detailed by artist Amelia Hansen. This book will not help with identification, just like my Shrub ID won't provide any fascinating details. For instance, the Buttonbush takes up three full pages and three sketches!

Within the three Buttonbush pages, there are details on plants likely to be neighboring with our specimen. There are details on insects that assist, attack, and defend the plant. There is lore on medicinal uses. The birds who eat the seeds.

I began this project with the intent of listing each and every plant, bird, mammal. I'm coming to see the natural community around me, the symbiotic to parasitic supports and dependencies of all my lake creatures. I don't know yet how I will learn to tie this all together but that intent is now within. You know, when I see a bush that I can now identity, I give a silent little hello. At the same time, I know that a label is not knowledge, but yet the labeling process is experience.

I've had this thought for an organzied list of my plant books. I even set up an Associate account with so that I could collect a percentage of sales through this blog. It's the programmer/analyst in me. For now, I've decided that I'll forget about Amazon and regimented lists and simply label posts about books with, well, 'Book'. Click on that entry in the index and there's my list. Simple!

I'm a little light on pictures this evening. I mean, I could put out a shot of another mystery but I'd need more and better photos to make an ID. Tomorrow I plan to get out and pick up some new shots. So, until then, here's one I didn't have to go traipsing through the snow for. I shot this waxing gibbous just before December's full moon. And although I didn't know it at the time, this was to be a perigee full moon,the biggest and brightest full moon of the year.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Something Not Frozen

It's cold and getting colder. I'm running out of material and this weather, this weather... There are workarounds. I've been wanting to list my books with reviews and will probably hibernate and work on that over the weekend.

But for today, here's an unknown bush, one that I should be able to identify with just a twig to help. But until then, we can simply enjoy this for the sake of Something Not Frozen!

Yes! I just found this accompanying shot. (Makes me think that some organization is needed. Okay, dismiss that thought for now...) It's a flower or seed head that I closed in on. Perhaps you can notice at the top center to right of the above shot, the little bent over twigs with a spot at the ends. Yep, that's it. (Oops, it's upside down in relation to the top shot. Creative license...that sounds good.) I'd like to grab one of them when I get a twig. Some controlled indoor shots would be a lot of fun!

Update: See the Jan 16 post for more on this identification of Buttonbush, Cephalanthus occidentalis.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Downy Woodpecker

Here's a male Downy Woodpecker, Picoides pubescens, the smallest woodpecker in North America. Males have a red spot and the females have a black one.

This little fellow is another regular around here. There must be lots of good bugs because he frequents this crabapple tree. There are three trees in the yard and he does prefer this one. He will occasionally swoop onto the feeder for a sunflower seed or two.

In years gone by, there would be a block of suet as well. Downies love suet! In fact, I think it's time to restart that practice, especially with the cold weather coming in. The predictions have the nightly lows near 0 degrees F. Snow tonight into tomorrow. Brr!

Tuesday, January 13, 2009


Here's an American Goldfinch, Carduelis tristis. This coloration seems to indicate the female. The male will have a mellow yellow (sorry, couldn't resist...) head in the winter. Come spring, both genders go through a molt to more intense yellow plumage, especially the male. This is the only specie to molt in spring as well as in the fall.

I used to put out special thistle feeders to attract the Goldfinch but have since found that they enjoy sunflower seeds just as well.

I must take a turn from the usual banter of flaura and fauna to mention friends.

Firstly, here's a shout out to George and Sandra, vacationing in Puerto Rico but taking the blog with them. George assured me that his new iPhone was suitably set up to get his daily dose of Nuncketest. Happy vacationing, guys!

And, a particular and warm greeting to you, Val, for all your kindness and encouragement with my blogging endeavor.

I hope you folks are enjoying your warm climates--it's awfully cold up this way!

Monday, January 12, 2009

Blue Jay

A year-round regular at the feeders is the Blue Jay, Cyanocitta cristata. All the local critters acquiesce to their aggressive manners as well as their warning cries. A blue jay can clear the yard in a moment.

Here's one making off with a peanut. Notice the lack of coloration here. The Blue Jay's color is of refraction--not pigment. I wonder if this is why we're missing the blue here?

Sunday, January 11, 2009


It's the middle of winter and the snow is soft and deep. You feel a light breeze and hear a strange buzzing. There's a good chance that vibrating Beech leaves are the culprits.

Here's a glimpse at a few American Beech, Fagus grandiflora, leaves. You may notice a couple of buds--they're long, slender, and pointed. The bark is entirely smooth, even the trunk of a large trees, which makes this a desirable surface for a young man to carve his sweetheart's name upon.

Notice the pinnately-veined leaves, veins branching out straight, opposite, and parallel from the midrib, ending with a sharp tooth. The leaves themselves form in an alternate arrangement.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Mourning Dove

It is their nature to blend in well while pecking around my dirt road or yard. I guess the same goes for the crabapple tree. Click the photo for a hopefully better view.

The Mourning Dove, Zenaida macroura, is a peaceful bird. They sometimes play on the ground a bit of dodge ems with each other but that's as far as agression goes. I sadly watched a hawk snap one up out of the yard last week. Ah well, it is the business of survival. They've been clocked on the wing at 55 mph but their takeoffs and landings aren't exactly aircraft carrier style, making them easy pickings while grounded.

The males make a very distictive Ooo--ooo-ooo sound with the arrival of mating season. For years I thought it to be of a migrating specie as I never heard it until spring. It's a marker for me to validate that winter is over.

Friday, January 9, 2009


Greenbriar, Smilax rotundifolia, to anyone who has tangled with it, will know it as organic barbed wire. For birds and small mammals, it's just the ticket for those in need of a well defended castle. It's common to see small animal trails throughout the vines and rabbits are known to nest their young there. Sorry, but there are no trails photos yet--there's snow on the ground and more on the way.

Also known as horsebriar or bullbriar, it's one of very few North Eastern USA vines to sport both thorns and tendrils. This specie will have tendrils only--no thorns, that is-- on the nodes. That and a good jab make it an easy identification.

By the way, Monday's mystery grass is in the clutches of a greenbriar vine, although it curiously has a very light hold on the culm, unlike the tight grips we see in the top shot.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Lake Tribute

Tonight we take a break from the individual lake entities and stand back for the gestalt. Here is sunset across the ice viewed from the southernmost shoreline.

I came home from work tired and wondering what I'd dig up for tonight's specimen. Thinking I could work up the beech tree, I suddenly got a burst of energy with the idea to head out around the lake. This was my reward.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Mystery Solved!

The Shrub Identification Book by George W. D. Symonds, photographs by A. W. Merwin, to the rescue!

The first half of this book is split into black and white picture keys by thorns, leaves, flowers, fruit, twigs, and bark. Each picture key points to all aspects of the shrub found in the second half, the master pages.

What an incredibly easy system! I quickly narrowed down my mystery seed pods to a few possibilities and after looking closely and reading descriptions of key identifiers, the mystery was solved within minutes.

Sweet Pepperbush, Clethra alnifolia, is a very common shrub found from Maine and down the coastal states to Florida and across to Texas. Appearances can vary as there are a few varieties with pink flowers and another as a more compact bush. My local shrubs all have white flowers--I remember them from last summer.

This struggled identification taught me better observation--important identifiers were that each seed pod was individually attached to a main stalk, that there were five petals, and that there was a persistent and elongated style. I hope this photo helps to illustrate these identifiers.

Here's a Google Books link to this great tool.

For earlier posts regarding the Sweet Pepperbush, see the Index over to the left.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Bits and Pieces

It's leftover night here on the blog. I occasionally need to attend a nearly all day distant meeting that takes up a larger than normal work period. Today was one of those days. Although...I did enjoy the highway driving, taking time to notice various trees and bushes. If I ended up going slower than the general traffic... no one seemed to complain.

A pile of ID books are in and need review later on. But for now, here's another icy shot from a few days ago.

And now for something completely different, here is an experiment using Photoshop Elements and a sketching technique. This is an early shot of dried flower pods from my famous mystery shrub. I am optimistic that my newly acquired books will put an end to its unknown status.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Mystery Grass

Well why not? What's life without a little mystery?

Actually, I don't feel too very guilty as some grass identification books are expected to arrive tomorrow. My little library is growing and soon I'll set up a posting to list my tools. And maybe, I'll find identification a bit easier.

Included here is a closer shot of the briar's tendril and its grip on the grass's stalk. We'll soon be taking a closer look at these briars--they grow thickly and are well populated around the lake.

Sunday, January 4, 2009


Many of my recent specimens have been difficult for this wannabe dendrologist to identify. So much so, in fact, that a few must be tabled for now, but not so for my old friend the Buttonwood.

American Sycamore, Planatus occidentalis, is a rather sparse tree around the lake. It's also probably the easiest to spot with its distinctive bark. It commonly grows as a clump and that's just what we see here.

Come summer, we'll get to see leaves that look similar to maple, but wider and much larger.

These tress have rather interesting fruit balls that don't appear in any of these pictures. Once the snow clears, I'll check for some beneath.

This specie was first identified to me many years ago. My groundskeeper boss and the local town tree warden, Bucky, matter of factly pointed out, "Johnny, this is Buttonwood. You won't see these very often." That's why I'll always use the alternate common name Buttonwood.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Winter Returns

What a difference a week makes! This is the same location as the previous post (photographed on Dec 28th) a week later (shot today).

And here's a more expansive view from the same location.
And lastly, here are a couple of my daily visitors. Well, almost daily. After the last storm they didn't come around for a day--there were no tracks in the eight inches of snow with single degree temperatures. Eastern Grey Squirrels, Sciurus carolinensis. Each day they receive a few handfuls of peanuts that help to keep them occupied and off the feeders. Well, kinda sorta any way.

Friday, January 2, 2009


It's hard to believe that this picture was taken a week ago. Now the lake is frozen over with about eight inches of snow. This weather is making it difficult to get out and explore.

I think I'll need to start snipping samples of twigs and seed pods. When I'm home thumbing through pages of identification guides, I'm often left scratching my head.

This being the case, and my obsession to post daily (although I did guiltily miss New Years Eve with band), here's a little photo of a couple of unidentified twins.

This weekend I'm ordering up another round of tree, shrub, and grass books. Now I just need to find time to dig in. Macro photo lighting, Photoshop techniques, and on and on... Whatever, this project is quickly becoming a very familiar part of my life--something that I'd really rather not do without. Passion is a good thing.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Bramble On

I was stunned to come upon this lovely creature, so vibrantly green, at this time of year. A solitary red cane hosting leaves solely at its tip. And, it was the only one to be found.

Like so many plants that I am discovering, I am humbled so say that I have little idea on identification. My meager but growing library does help and I realize that I need many more books. The web, often useful, can be a source of misinformation and one bad apple can often find its way copied all around.

It's often been written and I am coming to understand that the best tools for identifying plants are the line drawings. These illustrations bring out the key features that provide for me the aha! experience. Imagine how the illustrator artist has to know just what is important and how to present it with just a few perfectly placed marks of ink of paper. Such talent is a true treasure.

This little fellow looks to be a Black Raspberry, Rubus occidentalis. I'm having difficulty coming up with enough identifying characteristics of the brambles, so this will have to do for now, although why do I keep seeing a rosebush?

Happy New Year!