Fall: the season of back-to-school and back-to-work. It’s all too easy in our modern world to become buried in our work or studies with our heads dutifully craned down, staring at the glare of a glowing screen. For this edition of Explorer’s Notebook, the DLC’s Julie Hart reminds us to pick our heads up now and again and remember to take in the wonders of our natural world.
See that big clump of leaves up in that tree? It’s a DREY, the home of an Eastern Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis). Dreys are carefully constructed from dry leaves and twigs, lined with moss and dry grasses. Squirrels may be pests at the bird feeder, but they also bury nuts and seeds in the ground as a food supply for the winter. Because many of these nuts and seeds never get dug up and eaten, squirrels are great contributors to forest regeneration. They are planting tree seedlings galore!
Did you know that CLOUDS are identified by genus and species names, just like plants and animals? The World Meteorological Organization’s International Cloud Atlas (cloudatlas.wmo.int) has great information on cloud identification and etymology of cloud names. Isn’t it great to know that spending hours gazing at cloud formations counts as serious scientific observation? To explore “cloud-spotting,” take a look at photos of clouds from around the world at the Cloud Appreciation Society’s website at cloudappreciationsociety.com.
We often think of the MOON as a denizen of the night sky, but in fact it is visible just as much during the day as it is at night – it just has too much competition when the sun is up! Visit the U.S. Naval Observatory’s webpage (aa.usno.navy.mil/data/docs/RS_OneYear.php) to generate a table for your location, showing moonrise and moonset times for a year, so you’ll know when to look for it. You won’t need a telescope to check out the lunar mountains, plains and craters – a pair of binoculars will do just fine!
When you see an enormous bird soaring overhead, it’s most likely a BALD EAGLE (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) or a TURKEY VULTURE (Cathartes aura). How do you tell the difference? A turkey vulture flies with its wings slightly upraised, so it is shaped like a very broad letter “V” and tends to wobble from side to side as it flies. Bald eagles soar with their wings almost perfectly horizontal and do not wobble. And, of course, if it’s an adult bald eagle and you get a close look, you’ll see the majestic white head and tail feathers!
What’s with all those lines of little holes in the tree bark? Most likely you’ve spotted a tree visited by a YELLOW-BELLIED SAPSUCKER (Sphyrapicus varius). This bird, as its name suggests, drinks tree sap as a major food source, and it does so by drilling multiple holes in the bark to reach the tree’s conductive tissues (called xylem and phloem). Birch, maple and hickory are favorite trees of the sapsucker because of the high sugar content in their sap.
When you walk in the forest, stop and look up every once in a while; take a moment to appreciate the TREE CANOPY above you. Notice the different leaf shapes and bark patterns that define each tree species, enjoy the shade they provide and breathe in the oxygen they’re producing through photosynthesis. Remain still and quiet and you’ll notice you’re not alone: the flicker of a bird’s wing will catch your eye, there are insects on the trunk and leaves, and a squirrel scampers through the high branches on its quest for food.
We seldom use the stars to navigate anymore (thanks GPS!), but stargazing is still a sublime human experience. Stars, galaxies, planets and even human-made objects, like the INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION, are all visible. NASA’s “Spot the Station” website, spotthestation.nasa.org, will help you find when and where to see the ISS. You’ll see an unblinking light visible for just a few minutes as it moves quickly across the sky. The less light pollution in your area, the more stars you’ll be able to see. To learn how to minimize light pollution, visit darksky.org.
Owls are mainly nocturnal birds who hunt at night, but where do they go during the day? Many species like to roost on a high tree branch and often prefer conifers, such as hemlock or pine. Some of our smaller owls, like the EASTERN SCREECH OWL (Otus asio) and NORTHERN SAW-WHET OWL (Aegolius acadicus), may spend their days in a tree cavity. They don’t make these cavities themselves, but use existing holes created by woodpeckers or rotted wood. Check out the bird webcams on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website to see birds in their natural habitats at cams.allaboutbirds.org.
Have you ever noticed that in some years there are loads of acorns on your oak tree and in other years there are hardly any? This process is called MASTING, and it’s common in oak, hickory and beech trees. Why does it not happen yearly? Well, it takes a lot of resources to produce those high-fat, high-protein nuts and trees can’t afford to expend that much energy every year. Also, when so many nuts are made at once there is a better chance that some will survive to sprout into the next generation of trees – those hungry squirrels, mice, chipmunks, turkeys and deer can’t eat them all!
What’s that buzz? Look around and you might find you’re near a nest of BEES or WASPS. While most species of bees and wasps are solitary, the ones we know best are the social species, such as honeybees and paper wasps. Both of these species build colonies in trees: honeybees may fill a hollow tree with honeycomb, while paper wasps often build their elegant nests on an overhanging branch. If you don’t disturb them, they’ll probably leave you alone (unlike aggressive species such as yellow jackets!). So, just move quietly along and let them go about their ‘buzziness’.
Photo credits: Deb Tracy-Kral (bald eagle/turkey vulture); Kirsten Edlund (owl)