Thursday, August 31, 2006

Circus of Delights

Circus of the Spineless #12: yes, the first full year of the monthly carnival of the best of invertebrate blogging from around the blogosphere comes to a close. Where does the time go?

Ringmaster Steve of Sunbeams from Cucumbers (now there's an idea) has put together a great show. Check it out!

Watch for Circus of the Spineless #13, September 30, at Deep Sea News.

I and the Bird #31

up at migrateblog

a haiku for every one
it's I and the Bird

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Apple-Sumac Jelly

As I've mentioned before, this has been a spectacular year for fruit. After years of wanting to harvest wild grapes for jelly, for example, this year I've finally been able to do it, and leave behind many more than I took. The grapes are in the freezer right now waiting their turn in the jelly queue.

While picking grapes I discovered a little apple tree in front of the old apple tree in the far field that I'd never noticed before. It had a few apples on it--I took some, left a couple, and cut the well-laden grapevine off it. I'll go back and clear the grapevine further back, and maybe next year this tree will produce a real crop. It's great to have all these wild grapes, but the vines kill trees, so I try to take them off of any trees that I want to protect. The grapevines are winning (maybe because there's too much edge and not enough woods) so I don't have any compunction about taking the side of the trees.

Last year was my first successful foray into jelly-making, using a few crab apples given to me by a neighbour and apples off the tree in the yard. This year I'm right into it: starting with strawberry, raspberry (best), blueberry and peach (not so good) freezer jams (all except the peaches fresh-picked in the neighbourhood), and moving on to chokecherry, apple, and most recently apple-sumac jelly.

The fruit of the staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) is fuzzy, and quite unfruitlike. I've heard tell of a cold drink, reputed to be like lemonade, made with its juice. I've never tasted it, but doubt that's it's anything like lemonade. Nevertheless, here's a link to a recipe for it.

This is fruit as it was at the end of July. I gathered the fruit I used last week, by which time it had gotten quite dark. I was assured by people who knew that it was still suitable for jelly.

The juice I made for the jelly from the sumac fruit I collected looked and smelled like very strong tea.
To make the juice: rinse the fruit clusters, cover with water, bring to a boil, boil gently for about 10 minutes, crush through a sieve, strain though a jelly bag, or three or four layers of cheesecloth in a colander. (Get a jelly bag!) I cooked up the sumac with a few apples because I intended to use both in the jelly anyway, and to check the cooking time (until the apples are soft). I was nervous about both how it looked and how it smelled, but I went ahead. The juice will keep in the refrigerator for a few days.

Make your apple juice the same way--for small apples, cut off the blossom and stem end before cooking; larger ones, cut in quarters.

Apple-Sumac Jelly

7 cups juice:
3.5 cups sumac juice
2.5 cups apple juice
1 cup commercial apple-cranberry juice (which had been sitting in the fridge), added to make up the 7 cups.

The proportion of apple to sumac juice was arrived at by the amount of each I had ready. The commerical juice was a whim I had. Different proportions and different bits of whimsy would probably work out as well.

In a large pot, stir in one packet of pectin crystals, bring to a boil, add 8 cups sugar and boil hard for one minute. Take off heat, skim, bottle and seal, according to whatever system you use for this.
The jelly is delicious! Mine is a little soft, either because of the commercial juice I added or because it boiled over (use a large enough pot!!), so might not have boiled hard for the full minute. But I like it soft, so am content. Jelly depends partly on the pectin content of the fruit you start out with, something best determined by how the jelly turns out.

I was inspired to write about this by a post I read at Roundrock Journal about the winged sumac (Rhus copaliina). The fruit looks something like that of the staghorn, but isn't in tight clusters. I wonder if you can make jelly with it.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Teddy-bear Bee

Walking in the field a few days ago I was stopped by the sight of a small fuzzy something moving rather oddly across a leaf. A bee? A bee tangled in something? A strange bee!

I knew, after I saw the photos, that I had something I hadn't seen before--but where to start to find out what? I went to, joined up, and uploaded a couple of the photos (here).

Fantastic feet!

In almost no time I had an answer: male leaf-cutting bee of the genus Megachile, identified by Eric Eaton

I've never seen a cuter bee!

I continue to be amazed that insect identification is possible. I'm still trying to let go of my vertebrate preconceptions. There are a number of advantages to keeping your skeleton on the inside--you can get a lot bigger, for example. But it does restrict the evolutionary pathways a species can follow. Looking at the world as a vertebrate I have a hard time getting used to the idea that relatively closely related species can vary enormously in what are to vertebrates very basic characteristics. Just one example: the mouth parts on this little cutie, compare them to those of the bee on scat I found in July.

Friday Ark #101 Who's on Board?

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Fledging Day

Last Friday morning, around 9:00 am, just as I was getting ready to leave for the day, I stepped out on the patio and saw this:

One of the baby wrens (of In the Company of Wrens fame) sitting in the rafters of the patio roof. I heard a commotion in the spruce near the house and walked over to see another fledgling being attended by its parents.

Back at the patio the raftered fledgling took off in the wrong direction, got caught in a spider web over the door, fought its way out, and dropped to the ground. Thinking I'd need to do a rescue I got a butterfly net, but when I went over to the little bird it scurried away across the patio and the garden and managed to jump into the spruce where the other fledgling was. Meantime, two more fledged, making their maiden flights of 5 or so metres successfully, straight out of the watering can (nesting box) and into the spruce.

That blur in the picture is a whirring fledgling

There was a least one wren left in the nest when I finally left (late, but who could blame me?). Later it was reported to me that after an hour everyone had gone. So there were at least five (a normal clutch size), proving that a watering can is a good nest site for House Wrens.

The fledglings spent the first day or two out in a brush pile nearby being fed by their parents, then the whole family moved to the grapevine tangle at the back of the yard, and the young pines just beyond.

Monday, August 21, 2006

The Cecropia and the McIntosh

This is a story that's been sitting on the backburner since August 3, but it must be told. One day (i.e., August 3) I walked by the baby McIntosh Apple tree in the yard and saw this:

Hyalophora cecropia

A Cecropia caterpillar, munching away on the leaves of this small and much beleaguered tree. I recognized the caterpillar right away because last year my neighbour Nancy called me to report one of these very striking critters down at her place (see Night Flyers).

Apple trees do not breed true. This little tree, like every other McIntosh, is grown from a cutting from another McIntosh grafted onto rootstock, eventually tracing back to the original tree discovered by John McIntosh in 1811 near Prescott, Ontario. I've never liked McIntosh apples, it's Gala for me. The McIntosh's slightly winey smell reminds me of the wet-wool-apple-and-peanut-butter smell of the cloakroom in primary school. But I do respect the history of the tree, and its instantiation in the yard here is beloved. Why "beleaguered"? In spite of love and respect this little tree was almost destroyed by a weed whacker two years ago. Luckily the destruction was above the graft, leaving enough of the McIntosh to regrow. It doesn't need the further setback of being devoured by a giant caterpillar. It was already looking pretty sparse when I found the Cecropia, so the caterpillar had to go.

Not only is this an impressive caterpillar, but it gives rise to a very beautiful moth, also know as the Robin Moth. Cindy of Woodsong has a very beautiful photo of the Cecropia moth here. So when I say "go," I mean it must move to another host plant.

One of many suction-cup feet.

This critter's got serious feet, and sharp spines. I know that some caterpillars' spines sting, and I couldn't remember if that was the case here, so gingerly, not wanting to crush it, and not wanting to get stung, I managed to disengage it from the tree. Turned out that the spines pricked but did not sting, but still I didn't want to carry it in my bare hands, so I popped it into a little planter for transport. There is a mature, generic apple tree in the yard, lots of leaves, one little caterpillar would be no threat, especially one so close to maturity, so I took it over there. I chose the apple tree because at the time I didn't know how particular this creature was about its host plant--turns out that it would probably have been content with any of a number of species. According to this site it is especially fond of Manitoba maple leaves, of which we have plenty.

Once it stuck itself to the bottom of this pot there was no chance of getting it out so I put the container in a crotch of the tree and left it alone.

The tree is having a great year.

I went back to check later and found the caterpillar munching happily in its new home.

It stayed on the tree for the next few days, then disappeared. Like many other moths and butterflies, these guys move off the host plant to make their cocoons, so my hope is that this is what happened here.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

I and the Bird #30

The 30th edition of the fabulous carnival of the best of recent bird and birder blogging, I and the Bird, is up at Burning Silo. It's another great collection of stories from all over the world. One that particularly caught my eye, given the events of last night, is Glorious Goatsuckers at Rigor Vitae, a very detailed and beautifully illustrated account of nightjars around the world. Head on over and see what else's on offer!

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Night of the Goatsuckers

Most summers, around this time, or sometimes later, there is an evening when the sky fills with nighthawks (Chordeiles minor), making their way south.

Tonight was the night. I must have seen 100 or more of these beautiful birds, twirling and swooping across the sky, wave after wave.

I just wish I could have gotten a picture that captures the experience, instead of these of specks, that I'm publishing nevertheless, to mark the occasion.

Monday, August 14, 2006

In the Company of Wrens

After the House Wren (Troglodytes aedon) pair successfully raised their first brood there was considerable back and forth between a perfectly good, unused nest box attached to the shed and a watering can hanging from a hook in the rafters of the patio roof. This went on for weeks, both cavities were filled with sticks, much singing was done in the vicinity of both, wrens went in and out of both. It wasn't until just last week that I saw a wren carrying food go into the watering can that I knew it was actually being used. Now it's audibly full of large nestlings that I expect will fledge very soon.

Surrounded by Jerusalem artichokes and hops

Wrens are noted for using a wide variety of cavities in human artifacts for their nests, but this is the first time I've seen it here--and to turn down that carefully cleaned and hung box, so well-situated, away from the main drag.

From Birds by Bent:
Other interesting nesting sites of the house wren have been in a fish creel or watering pot hung on the side of a shed or fence, rusty tin cans in garbage piles, old threshing machines and other farm machinery, in tin cans, teapots, and flowerpots left on shelves of sheds, in a soap dish, in old boots and shoes, and even in a bag of feathers. Outdoors they have been known to nest in the nozzle or main part of pumps, in the hat or pockets of a scarecrow, in an iron pipe railing, in a weather vane, in holes in a brick wall or building, and in a coat hung up at a camp site. One pair of wrens built their nest on the rear axle of an automobile which was used daily. When the car was driven the wrens went along. Even under these most unusual circumstances the eggs were successfully hatched (Northcutt, 1937).

One thing I noticed having them so close at hand was all the conversation that went on between the pair, while, I guess, the nest was being perfected and the female was sitting on eggs. All the sounds were wren-like, but very complex at times. Even a few days ago, when feeding and poo-removal (pictured at the right) was going strong, I'd hear one or another of the wrens in the nearby spruce producing a catbird-like cacophony of squeaks and chatters.

And there's lots of scolding too, of course. Though the only chasing I've seen was of a chickadee, the only other cavity nester that's happened into the vicinity of the nest since it's been active, which I speculate is the reason the wren chased it, while tolerating the robins, cedar waxwings, blue jays, and various others who've been around. I'm surprised by the tolerance shown the bluejays, which have been particularly numerous (and noisy) around the yard this year, but perhaps they pose no threat. Obviously the opening into the watering can is much larger than that of the standard nest box, but inside (unfortunately I haven't been able to photograph this) there is a "vestibule" of a few inches, and then a wall of sticks, with just a small open space between its top and the wall of the can, that hides the nest. It seems possible that this arrangement would prevent most avian nest predators from gaining access.

Hummingbird numbers are way up just now as the young are out of their nests and into the feeders, also around the patio. The wrens don't chase the hummingbirds, but one day I did see a hummingbird chase one of the wrens. It'll seem awfully quiet when they've both gone south--won't be long now.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Question Mark (one more time)

Question Mark Butterfly

Now that I know that an anglewing butterfly, such as the Question mark (Polygonia interrogationis), looks like resting with its wings closed (from a distance, a dead leaf), and my eyes are tuned to the colours and markings of the punctuation butterflies, I'm seeing Question Mark butterflies all the time.

Submitted to the Friday Ark. Drop by to see who else is on board.

Front Porch Birding

Across a little strip of lawn from the front porch is the biggest, most prolific honeysuckle bush in the yard. The fruit is ripe, and it's doing great business. I can sit on the front porch and watch young American Robins, Cedar Waxwings, Gray Catbirds, Brown Thrashers, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks and Baltimore Orioles chowing down.

Adult Cedar Waxwing

The first serious visitors were fledgling robins and their parents, but soon the waxwings began visiting in earnest. They're are at least two families of waxwings coming, going by the different plumages on the fledglings.

Last week fledgling robins dominated

The catbirds, thrashers, orioles and grosbeaks are more occasional visitors. This has been a fantastic year for most fruit, and the yard offers chokecherries, as well as a number of honeysuckle feeding stations. There were so many chokecherries on the two small trees that I was able to harvest enough for jelly and leave behind more than the total we've seen in other years.

Young Cedar Waxwing, feeding on its own!

There is a pair of wrens nesting in a watering can hanging in the patio, I think. But the other birds in the yard seem to be done with nesting. The goldfinches have returned after an absence of some weeks (or at least, they were keeping a lower profile). Blue jay young are whining everywhere. A family of warbling vireos passed through a few days ago. Chickadees, young in tow, are flocking around. Sparrows, mostly chipping and song, are more numerous. Clusters of phoebes have been noted. And I think I saw a very young fledgling grackle yesterday. On the other hand, swallows are scarce (I saw swallows gathering in Prince Edward County last week, in preparation for the big move). And I saw a single nighthawk fly over the other evening--a sure sign that fall is coming.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Fabulous Vacation

Take a world tour with I and the Bird #29, guided by host Leigh of Alis Volat Propiis.

I and the Bird is the carnival of the best of bird and birder stories from around the blogosphere. Click the logo for more information. And watch for the next I and the Bird, on August 17, at Burning Silo (submissions due August 15).