Ghost Bird

leucistic redtail 1“What is it?” the e-mail asked.

Attached to it were four photos from a trail cam our caretakers, Paula and Troy Scott, had set up behind the spruce grove. The photos showed a large white raptor feeding on top of a carcass the Scotts had secured to lure in wintering golden eagles for an ongoing region-wide study.

Stuck inside most of last winter with a deep muscle tear in my left calf, I eagerly awaited photos of the many wild creatures that visited their three trail cams. But this bird was a real puzzle.

The raptor’s back and head were white except for the tips of a couple black primary wing feathers, a small black patch on top of its head and another on its neck. Its breast, belly, and tail coverts were pure white and so were the feathers on its legs. Then I looked at the tail, which was mostly white with a couple bands of red. The mystery bird was a red-tailed hawk.

Like most people who see a white red-tail, I thought I was seeing a rarity. But according to William S. Clark and Brian K. Wheeler, authors of Hawks of North America, a Peterson Field Guide, “Partial albinos, varying from almost all white birds to some with just a few white feathers, are fairly common and are reported from almost all areas. Most birds are from half white to mostly white.”

Our bird was mostly white and did not have a dark area on its nape as most do. In addition, our bird had dark eyes and an orange beak and talons.

leucistic redtail 2I expected to find more information about white red-tails in my many books on birds, but even The Birds of North Americas definitive account of red-tailed hawks failed to mention this phenomenon.

I was more successful when I Googled “albinism in birds and animals” and “partial albinism in red-tailed hawks.” The former convinced me that terms for white creatures varied, although pure albinism in birds is caused by a genetic mutation that interferes with the production of the melanin or dark pigment that determines the black color of birds’ feathers.

One source declared that partial albinism is now called “leucism” and that the term comes from the Latin “leuk” or Greek “leukos” meaning “white.” But another source, which I found easier to understand, had a chart that differentiated between three types of albinism.

A true albino is white or pink all over with pink eyes and has little or no ability to produce colors. Those are indeed rare among mammals and birds. For instance, Henry Kendall, a master falconer in St. Louis, has reported 600 sightings of oddly-colored red-tails throughout North America in ten years. Of those, only one was a pure white albino with pink eyes.

Those eyes are pink because red blood cells in the retinal blood vessels beneath are not hidden by pigment. For this reason albino birds and animals often go blind since they don’t have pigments in their eyes to protect them from sunlight.

A leucistic creature is white or pink all over, its eyes are usually blue, and it has little ability to produce color. Another source says a leucistic animal is not pure white, its pigmentation is diluted, and its plumage is lighter than usual but not pure white. David Bird, an ornithologist, recently defined leucism as “a partial loss of melanin pigments” in Bird Watcher’s Digest. That simple definition suited me.

leucistic redtail 3A partial albino, also called a partial leucistic by some experts, has small portions or patches of white, its eyes are a normal color, and it has the ability to produce most normal colors. Some sources call this the piebald effect.

By then, I was thoroughly confused. Our bird had more than small patches of white. So too did the red-tails folks reported on Eddie B. Horvath’s blog devoted to white red-tail sightings throughout North America. I scanned the dozens of reports and found several from Pennsylvania. One, from near Quakertown was “absolutely pure white.” Another from Lake Wallenpaupack was “100% white.” A third, on Route 706, 10 miles from Montrose, was “completely white.” Most recently one was sighted at the Flight 93 memorial site on March 12, 2012 and again on August 13, 2012.

Seeing the same bird twice in one area is fairly rare. We and the Scotts saw our bird only on the trail cam once, last Valentine’s Day, and never in the air. Years ago I observed a white woodchuck for several minutes at the Far Field thicket and never again. And once my son, Steve, and I spotted a white deer in our forest as we were driving down our road. It too disappeared.

These white animals lack protective camouflage and are easy for predators to spot. White deer and white bears are also prized by hunters, and one website reported a small white black bear in Pennsylvania was legally killed by a hunter from Spring Mills back in 2006.

But raptors are protected by the National Migratory Bird Act, and when a white red-tail, which had lived in south Texas for several years, was shot and left on a two-lane road, residents were angry and posted a $1000 reward for any information about the perpetrator. A local scientist was quoted as saying that “the average citizen loves white red-tails.”

leucistic redtail 4Writing for the Times Union in Albany, New York several years ago, Richard Guthrie reported the presence of at least six white red-tails with dark eyes in the area. All were females and all were paired with normal-colored red-tail males and were nesting.

Despite all these tales of white red-tails, researchers reported years ago that the most common albino or partial albino wild bird species is the American robin. A whopping 8.22% of all such birds were robins, but other researchers hypothesized that it could be because robins are commonly seen and often live in our yards.

Another reason for the high number of white robins may be because they don’t migrate far. Melanin pigments make feathers that are strong and last longer and the lack of such pigments in albino or partial albinos weaken birds, especially those that migrate long distances.

Lost in the world of white creatures on the Internet, I also learned that New York State has the largest white deer herd in the world. Back in 1941 in Seneca County, 10,600 acres were fenced to enclose the Seneca Army Depot, isolating a small herd of white-tailed deer, some of which had white coats. In the 1950s, although hunting was allowed in the Depot, the commander declared that hunters were forbidden to shoot white deer. Today, even though the army is cleaning up the site and moving out, of the 700 deer inside the fence, 300 are white. There are folks up there hoping to save the herd and they mention a prophesy supposedly made by the Lenape, who said that “It has long been predicted that there would come a time when a white male and female deer would be seen together and that this would be a sign to the people to come together.” I presume they mean that if enough like-minded people come together, the white deer herd will be saved for the many people who are interested in seeing them.

leucistic redtail 5Some Native Americans called white deer “ghost deer,” and I think of our white red-tail as a “ghost bird,” because we only saw it once and only on photographs. Artist and writer Julie Zickefoose was luckier. She spotted a pure albino red-tail during a drive from her rural Ohio home to Columbus on October 11, 2012. She posted several photos of it on her blog and described it as “something searingly beautiful, transformative, a vision, a bolt from the blue,” a description, I think, that those who have seen such birds would agree with.

Game cam photos courtesy of Paula Scott.

The Joy of Trail Cams

All photos and videos in this column are from trail cams on the mountain placed and monitored by the Scotts. (If you’re reading this via email or in a feed reader, you may have to click through to see the videos.)

Almost as soon as they settled into their new home, back in 2009, our caretaker couple — Troy and Paula Scott — installed three strobe cameras. As avid hunters, they were interested initially in monitoring the movements of deer over our square mile of mountain property.

But soon they were capturing other creatures on their cameras, especially at night. Paula quickly became the chief monitor of their cameras, and when the company that produced their strobe cameras — Wild Game Innovation — came out with video cameras, they purchased three of them.

Paula admits that monitoring the cameras throughout the year is addictive to her. She used to dislike winter, once hunting season ended, but now it’s her favorite time of year. That’s because she uses bait to attract a wide range of wild creatures. She hangs a discarded deer carcass by a wire from a tree limb, so it swings a foot or two off the ground directly in front of a camera.

Of course, when bears are abroad, she does not use bait, although she did get a bear on the surprising date of February 27. And that’s what she likes most about the cameras. She learns more about animal behavior especially with the video cameras. In less than two years, she has gotten excellent footage of 15 species of birds and mammals.

Her favorite sighting so far has been of two different fishers that kept returning to the bait. One especially she describes as a “camera ham.” It swung back and forth with the carcass and often faced the camera. Then it turned on its back and rolled with the carcass. All the while it seemed puzzled by this strange source of food.

Both Paula and I have had excellent sightings of fishers in our woods. We’ve also seen tracks in the snow. But the video footage of fishers gave us a whole new perspective on fisher behavior.

Watching two raccoons and an opossum feeding peacefully around the carcass was another surprising behavior observation for Paula.

“I figured they would be competitive and they weren’t,” she says.

She was also surprised that an American crow fed beside five turkey vultures.

And both she and Troy were amused and chagrined when an old hen decoy they had used to unsuccessfully attract gobblers years ago proved irresistible to six jakes at a time. She even has a video of a gobbler displaying in front of the decoy.

Besides the fishers, her other favorite sightings are several photos of a bobcat at the bait at night and a lovely video of a red-tailed hawk near the bait during a snowy day. I’m particularly fond of photos she has of red and gray foxes, despite the presence of coyotes in our area, because coyotes are supposed to prey on red foxes.

Recently they used a camera to find out what was chewing on their new deck at night. As they suspected, it was a porcupine. Instead of killing it, they put a cayenne pepper mixture on the deck and so far it’s kept the porcupine away.

Their original plan, to document deer, also has worked out well. They even have videos of a buck making a scrape and putting his scent on an overhanging limb. Paula cautions, though, that putting the cameras out during deer breeding season gives a false sense of the number of bucks in a hunting area because bucks come in from adjoining properties in search of doe.

When targeting deer, they put the cameras along obvious deer trails, leave them for a month, and then switch them. For other animals, it depends on the time of year and how successful the location is in capturing wildlife footage.

Learning how to obtain good images during the day means positioning them so that the sun doesn’t shine on them, otherwise, you end up with a lot of white footage, she says. You also have to hope that a bear won’t take issue with them. Paula’s brother-in-law Jeff had one ripped off and stomped into pieces, but so far they’ve been lucky. Only two cameras have been pulled down but not damaged.

Paula says in summary that, “these cameras, if you utilize them all year, pay for themselves. If you have a deer interest, as we did, and invest in cameras, you see it’s just not deer out there. It’s a lot of things.”

trail cam bobcat

a bobcat at the bait pile

Discovering what’s out there has tempted folks throughout the world to invest in trail cameras. One writer friend, Ken Lamberton, recently posted on Facebook a beautiful photo of a cougar on a fallen tree in the Mule Mountains of southern Arizona where he and his wife Karen live.

Speaking of cougars, Valentine, Nebraska businessman Kirk Sharp has 16 trail cameras posted around his ranch, which is a half-mile north of Rocky Ford on the Niobrara River in the wild north-central section of Nebraska. One of his cameras, mounted on a wooden fencepost, captured a cougar closely chasing a deer at 11:00 p.m. It was the first authenticated footage of a cougar chasing prey in the state, although since there was a deep canyon directly in front of them, no one knows the outcome.

James Hill III of Waterford Township, Erie County, Pennsylvania wondered what was taking the suet at his feeders. Hill, the founder of the Purple Martin Society, has a 150-acre wildlife sanctuary. Although he figured a bear was probably doing the damage, he put out a camera with a motion detector. To his surprise it was a sow with two cubs sharing the suet with them.

“I was astonished,” Hill says. “I never figured there’d be a family. I’m happy to have them.”

While individuals are enjoying their cameras, and finding out more about wildlife on their properties, so too are wildlife biologists. For instance, two researchers from Texas Tech University — Blake Gresham and Phil Borsdorf — have been studying the endangered lesser prairie chicken at The Nature Conservancy’s Yoakum Dunes Preserve near Lubbock, Texas. By erecting remote video cameras on 15 water tanks at the Preserve, they photographed 800 visits to the tanks by lesser prairie chickens, disproving the belief that the birds don’t need open water because they get enough moisture, except during drought, from succulent plants, insects, and dew. Gresham and Borsdorf found that hens especially needed extra water during nesting time because it takes a cup and a half of water to produce a clutch of ten eggs.

trail cam gray fox

gray fox

Conservation organizations are also starting to utilize trail cameras. A recent article in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society Biological Sciences entitled “Community Structure and Diversity of Tropical Forest Mammals: Data from a Global Camera Trap Network” recounts the results from the world’s first global camera trap mammal study. It involved nearly 52,000 candid shots of 105 mammal species from seven tropical sites around the globe.

The camera traps, low on the ground, made no noise and emitted no light so poachers couldn’t spot them at night. But in Africa, elephants, like our black bears, don’t like strange objects in their territory and tried to crush them.

Jorge Ahumada, the lead author and an ecologist with the Tropical Ecology Assessment and Monitoring Network (TEAM) says that “The study shows for us that for the conservation of these mammal species, size matters; …the size of the protected area and the degree of human activity around it have an effect on the …diversity of these animal communities.”

The Central Suriname Nature Reserve in South America had the most diversity — 28 species — while Nam Kading in Lao Public Democratic Republic in southeast Asia had the least — 13 species. The other sites included Uganda and Tanzania in Africa, Indonesia in Southeast Asia, Brazil in South America and Costa Rica in Central America.

The study ran from 2008-10 under the auspices of Conservation International, the Missouri Botanical Garden, the Smithsonian Institution, and the Wildlife Conservation Society. Because of its success, they have expanded it into 17 wilderness areas in Panama, Brazil, Peru, Madagascar, Congo, Cameroon, Malaysia and India. Ahuda says that these cameras “are reliable observers of the state of our world,” and the study concludes that “camera traps are a useful, efficient, cost-effective, easily replicable tool to study and monitor terrestrial mammals.”

They are also useful for studying large raptors. Dr. Todd Katzner at West Virginia University, along with Kieran O’Malley and Rob Tallman of the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources, is using them for estimating the size of the wintering golden eagle population in the Appalachians including Pennsylvania. The bait is road-killed deer dumped into a small clearing surrounded by tall trees where golden eagles can perch. The bait should be opened along the legs and abdomen to draw in common ravens and other birds that, in turn, alert eagles. Like Paula’s bait, it must be wired to keep it from being dragged off by other animals. The camera should be oriented to the north because that ensures that the sun is to the side or behind the camera, thus preventing white photos. The study is run from January 1 to February 15, and we are hoping to find a good place on our property for Paula to set up a camera.

Hunters in the United States, who first popularized the use of cameras to monitor deer presence, should feel proud of how useful these cameras have become in wildlife monitoring and conservation.

The Green House

To stay or to go.  That was the dilemma we faced.  We weren’t getting any younger, and my husband Bruce could no longer maintain our mile-and-a-half, steep mountain road, ten miles of trails, barn, shed, 1865 guesthouse, 1873 main house, and garage by himself.

Laying the foundation

Tim Shaw lays the foundation

Bruce also needed help keeping our tractor and secondhand bulldozer running.  In short, he needed a jack of all trades to live on our mountain and help him as he aged.  Instead, he got a Jack and a Jill — a couple from the valley below who were eager to move here, a couple familiar with our land because they had been hunting here for years.  Troy and Paula Scott agreed to our scheme.  We would build a home for them above the derelict house of our now-deceased neighbor Margaret, whose property we had bought back in 1992.  There, the Scotts could live rent-free as our caretakers.

Our son Dave and I, as conservationists, suggested that we build a “green” house.  Thus began a year of anticipation and frustration as we embarked on a new adventure — dealing with an architect, a building inspector, contractors, suppliers, a well-driller, an electrician, a plumber and a host of other people who mostly helped but sometimes hindered our progress.  The goal was to get the house built before rifle season began.  At the time — February 2008 — it seemed to be a reasonable goal.

We started by visiting friends of ours — Dave and Trudy Kyler — who had built a small, passive solar home near Huntingdon back in the 1970s.  All four of us spent a couple hours touring their home and hearing about their own building odyssey — their mistakes as well as their successes.  Paula took notes, and Troy studied the various aspects of passive solar design.  He particularly liked what the Kylers’ called a “knee-wall” of bricks built below their large windows to capture and retain heat.

First floor construction

First floor construction

We put much of the planning in the hands of the Scotts.  Bruce was in pain from a benign tumor pressing on his spine and was facing a major operation, although he did his best to help and advise whenever he could.  Paula searched the Internet for possible house plans they could modify and finally found what she thought was an ideal house plan from Sun Plans Incorporated called “Jersey ‘Scape.” But it was designed for the warmer South and had no basement.  We needed an architect to modify the plan, not only adding a full basement but making other design changes as well.

It took longer to change our plan than we figured on.  In the meantime, cold month followed cold month.  Would it never warm up?  Would it never stop raining?

While we waited, Troy lined up sub-contractors to dig the foundation and pour the concrete basement floor after Bruce carefully calculated the precise direction the house should face to obtain the most solar heat.  Specifically, “the south wall was to face due true south,” according to the plans.  “The primary goals” [of an energy efficient home] the plan continued, “are to let in sun in winter and keep it out in summer,” so the south side of the house has to function as a passive solar collector.

Pouring the floor

Pouring the basement floor

Furthermore, the land south of the house was supposed to be cleared of trees.  But Paula didn’t want a single tree cut, especially not the three huge old spruces in Margaret’s backyard on the southwest side of the house site.  After all, this was to be a house in the woods, not in a cleared development.  Luckily, the rest of Margaret’s old yard was reasonably open, and the spruces were saved.

Of course, brush and small trees had to be cut, especially for the septic field above the house.  Getting the septic system designed and approved took several more weeks than we anticipated.  That, in fact, became the theme of the year — nothing ever happened as quickly as we hoped.

At last, in early June, the rain stopped, the earth dried out, and excavation of the basement began.  Bruce had had his operation in mid-May and was slowly recovering. Every day he walked the quarter mile over to check on the progress of the house and to take photos.  Sometimes I joined him, especially for the more interesting (to me) aspects such as the laying of the concrete basement floor and the delivery of the roof trusses. The man who made the turn on to the one-lane county bridge across the Little Juniata River with those trusses hanging out the back of the truck was one impressive driver.

Grading the slope

Grading the slope for the once and future yard

By then we had learned how inadequate our road is for the delivery of large items such as those trusses and for the hauling of heavy excavating equipment.  Troy and Paula had to repair portions of the road every time another large truck dug deep ruts into it.  Buying more and more road gravel was just one of many expenses we hadn’t counted on.

Slowly, sometimes painfully, house-building proceeded through the summer months and into the fall.  Already, it was obvious that the house would not be finished by November, despite the help the Scotts gave in their free time.  An early snow the last day in October sent our first contractor home to New Jersey.  Then, a local contractor, Tim Shaw, who had constructed the basement, took over. Once winter set in, he obtained tire chains for his pickup truck. Ice and snow were not going to keep him from finishing the house.

At the beginning of March, Troy and Paula, having worked with Tim all winter to finish the inside of the house, moved in.  I joked that they lived in a camouflage house with its green metal roof and light, greenish-brown “Woodland Green” siding, neither of which makes the house strictly a true “green” house, although as Paula points out, the roof has a lifetime guarantee and can ultimately be recycled.

Bringing the roof trusses up the hollow

Bringing the roof trusses up the hollow

And Bruce adds that “Building a house is a fleet of compromises,” especially a “green” house.  Neither of our contractors had had any experience building such a house.  Neither had any of the other workers.  We spent hours poring over the plans, and ultimately the house became what we hoped it would be.

The south-facing windows are specially designed to keep the house cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter and have casement openings that lock tightly against weather-stripping.  They are overhung by 24-inch eaves that shade the house in summer and let maximum heat in during the winter. The windows in the back and sides of the house are smaller, casement-type windows, which are more energy-efficient than those that are double hung.

Installing the metal roof

Installing the metal roof

The 1500 square-foot house has three bedrooms and two baths. The living room, dining room, and kitchen have no walls between them for better air circulation except for a four-foot-high wall dividing the living room from the dining room. The floors in front of the south-facing windows are tiled and so is the dividing wall in order to retain heat during the day and give it off at night.  Otherwise, the rest of the house has hardwood floors.  The furniture and the floors in the living space are neutral colors to prevent fading from the sun and all the walls are painted white.  On those walls are several heads of bucks, all of which the Scotts shot on our property.  The floors have no rugs because they trap dust and pollutants, another “green” recommendation from Sun Plans, Inc.  Ceiling fans are mounted in every room and can circulate cool air when needed.  Troy and Paula have also put compact florescent bulbs in all their light fixtures.

The entire house, including the basement, is heavily insulated with blue jean insulation made by Bonded Logic, Inc. from the factory trimmings of new jeans.  That “keeps the factory waste from the landfill,” Troy says. Soaked in borate, which serves as a fire retardant, pest deterrence, and mold and mildew preventative, this recycled denim provides a soft, non-prickly Green Building insulation that is better than fiberglass.

The drilling rig on Plummer's Hollow Boulevard

The drilling rig on Plummer's Hollow Boulevard

The aim of the Jersey ‘Scape design is to have a house that is 72 degrees Fahrenheit in summer and 70 degrees in winter, but the Scotts keep their home at 60 degrees in the winter, which feels perfectly comfortable because the place is so well insulated.  Nevertheless, they needed another source of heat in the winter with our mountaintop climate.

After much research, we decided to pay the extra money and install a geothermal heating and cooling system, tapping into the earth to provide heating, cooling and hot water.  In our case, in addition to drilling a well for water, the well-drillers also drilled four holes, 15 feet apart, and 190 feet deep, following directions from the local provider of the so-called GeoExchange system.

There are six possible earth loop designs, which transfer heat to and from the ground, depending on the terrain.  Ours is the vertical loop.  Simply put, a geothermal system works something like a refrigerator does, removing heat energy from the earth to heat the home and removing heat energy from inside the home to cool it.  Although it is more expensive to install than a traditional natural gas or oil furnace, it usually pays for itself in energy savings within three to five years.

Bringing in the geothermal heat exchanger unit

Bringing in the geothermal heat exchanger unit

Because the ground absorbs 47% of the sun’s energy that reaches the earth, this amount of energy is 500 times more than all of humanity would need every year.  Scientists figure that installing a geothermal system is equal, in greenhouse gas reduction, to planting an acre of trees or taking two cars off the road.  In fact, a geothermal system is considered the most environmentally friendly way to heat and cool a home because it emits no carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, or other greenhouse gases.

During our 38 years here, we have heated both our house and guesthouse with oil, a system that was already in place in the main house and one we installed in the guesthouse. We also put woodstoves in both houses as supplementary heating during much of the 1970s and 1980s until cutting wood and carrying it in to fill the stoves became too difficult for our aging bodies. In addition, we learned that the kind of woodstoves we had emitted even more air pollution than oil.  But getting oil trucks up here in winter has become more and more difficult especially after most of the suppliers have switched to trucks too large for our access road.  The Scotts will never have to worry about that.  If the geothermal heating system works well for them, we hope to invest in such a system for our homes too.

Inside the finished house, showing the knee-wall below the windows

Inside the finished house, showing the knee-wall below the windows

We also plan to “green” our old houses in other ways.  Already, Troy and Paula, with the help of their son, Andy, have installed blue jean insulation in our attic, and we purchased and Troy installed a new storm door for the veranda entrance.  We may also consider solar panels and/or small windmills on our roofs. While retrofitting old houses with “green” technology is possible, it is easier and cheaper to build such energy-efficient features into a new home as we did with the Scotts’ place.

So, there you have it.  Our plan for aging in place.  Instead of spending our savings on travel and other luxuries, we spent it on building a house that should last as a caretaker home for several generations.

The completed passive-solar "green" house

The completed passive-solar "green" house

All photos are by Bruce Bonta.

August Natives

Joe-pye-weed in Plummers Hollow, 2008

Joe-pye-weed in Plummer's Hollow, 2008

Joe Pye is back.  Not the Native American herbalist for whom the wildflower is named, but the gorgeous wildflower itself that towers above a sea of goldenrod in our First Field.

Once we had dozens of joe-pye-weeds lifting their clusters of tiny, purple-colored blossoms above the lesser field flowers in August.  Then they disappeared.  We suspected deer were the culprits, and since our hunters have reduced deer numbers, joe-pye-weeds have returned.

Joe-pye-weed is named for a Native American herb doctor who is said to have wandered around rural New England in the late 1700s and offered “his” wildflower — known as “augue weed” — as a treatment for typhoid fever.  Another Native American tribe considered it an aphrodisiac.  The Chippewas made solutions of it for inflamed joints, and the Potawatomi used its toothed, ovate-shaped leaves as poultices for burns.  In the nineteenth century, Americans treated urinary and kidney infections with it, hence its alternate names, “kidney-root” and “gravel-root.”

There are four species of joe-pye-weeds in Pennsylvania. The tallest is hollow joe-pye-weed (Eupatorium fistulosum), which can grow as high as twelve feet.  Also known as “trumpet-weed,” its hollow, purple stem is covered with a whitish bloom, and its blossoms are pinkish-purple.  It grows commonly in meadows, moist thickets, along roadsides and in floodplains.

Sweet joe-pye-weed (Eupatorium purpureum) has a solid green stem that is purple only where the leaves meet the stem, and its flowers can be pale pink or purplish.  When bruised, the plant smells like vanilla.  It likes drier, more shaded habitats such as open woods and fields.  Both it and spotted joe-pye-weed (Eupatorium maculatum) grow up to eight feet tall.  The stem of the latter is purple and spotted, its clusters of flowers flat-topped and purplish, and it favors wet areas—swamps, wet thickets and floodplains.

Eastern joe-pye-weed is much shorter, its stem finely purple-spotted, and its flowers purple.  This is the rarest of the species in Pennsylvania, preferring sandy, acidic soil in swamps, bogs, marshes and swales.  All four species have leaves in whorls of three to seven on their stems.

The flowers of joe-pye-weed hum with bees and are butterfly-attractants.  Although the insects aid in pollinating the flowers, the plant is also self-pollinating because of its closely-packed flowers, some male and some female, the pollen-bearing stamens touching the pollen-catching stigmas.

A stand of hollow joe-pye along Black Moshannon Creek

A stand of hollow joe-pye along Black Moshannon Creek

Another August-blooming Eupatorium that my husband Bruce and I found growing in a sea of Queen Anne’s lace in First Field during our evening walk was a single stalk of Eupatorium perfoliatum or boneset.  It too has clusters of flowers growing atop a tall stem, but its flowers are white and its stem hairy.  Its most distinctive feature is its opposite, lance-shaped leaves that clasp and surround the stem.

Boneset is another native herbal and its name may have originated from its use in treating dengue or break-bone fever that once ravaged the southern United States.  The fever is so painful that sufferers feel as if their bones are broken.  Sipping boneset tea, made from the dried leaves, was said to relieve the pain.  Another theory was that because boneset leaves were joined together, a poultice of the plant would help to knit broken bones.  Or, most likely, boneset tea was a pain-reliever for those with broken bones.

Boneset tea seemed to be a cure-all and was sipped to treat rheumatism, pneumonia, constipation, influenza, ringworm, and expelling tapeworms.  It was even purported to cure snakebite.  At least one account, by A.D. Magner in The New System 1883, seemed to justify that belief.  A young woman who lived in Mahomeny Creek, Jefferson County, Pennsylvania was bitten by a rattlesnake one morning, Magner wrote.  After the fruitless ride of her father to a doctor, who could do nothing, 20 miles away in Red Bank, the discouraged father was returning home when he was met by a neighbor who offered to help.  The neighbor ran across his field gathering boneset, chewing some of the leaves as a poultice to put on the bite, and he planned to use the rest boiled down in milk as a drink for the afflicted woman.  By the time they reached her, it was night, her tongue was swollen and hanging out of her mouth, and she was bleeding from her moth and ears.  But the neighbor kept changing the poultices and giving her spoonfuls of the tea throughout the night, and by morning, she could close her mouth and had stopped bleeding.  The following evening she was “entirely restored,” Magner claimed.

Probably the oddest use of boneset was by the Chippewas who rubbed boneset root fibers on special whistles they made as charms for calling deer.

Dried white snakeroot stems persist throughout the winter

Dried white snakeroot stems persist throughout the winter

Not all the Eupatoriums are as useful.  The most notorious one is white snakeroot (E. rugosum).  Even the deer don’t touch it, which is why it thrives in the edges of our fields and woods in late August and early September.  Cows are not as discriminating as deer and before humans realized it poisonous properties, their cows ate it.  This tainted the milk with a poison that killed thousands of eastern North American pioneers, including Abraham Lincoln’s mother Nancy.  It took decades before people figured out the culprit.

Native Americans, on the other hand, made a tea from its roots to help cure diarrhea, painful urination, fevers and kidney stones.  They also burned it and used the smoke to revive unconscious patients.

White snakeroot, also called “richweed,” has stalked, toothed, sharply-pointed, opposite leaves below three flower stalks, each of which supports clusters of fringy, white flowers that resemble the cultivated ageratum.  It blooms from August until early October.

Still another interesting native August wildflower that is making a comeback is turtlehead.  Once it flowered abundantly in our woods beside our stream, but it too is a favorite of deer and gradually turtlehead disappeared.  Then, a couple years ago, our son Steve discovered a large planting of it, hidden by the field grasses, at the base of a wet seep above our driveway.  I was elated, especially when Baltimore checkerspot butterflies fluttered above the patch.

These gorgeous black, orange and white butterflies lay their reddish eggs in clusters as high as 700 on turtlehead, or, less commonly, on English plantain and yellow foxglove.  The eggs hatch in two weeks and the larvae construct a silken nest and feed on turtlehead leaves inside the nest.  Although the larvae stop feeding in August, they over winter in their tent.  The following spring the bristly, black and orange caterpillars leave the tent and wander off to feed not only on turtlehead leaves but also on those of English plantain, honeysuckle, lousewort, and viburnum.

A turtle head blossom, from the field above the barn

A turtle head blossom, from the field above the barn

Looked at head on, the white or pinkish flowers of turtlehead resemble the head of a turtle, and its generic name Chelone is Greek for “tortoise.”  Its species name glabra means “smooth” and refers to its smooth stems and leaves.  Other names for turtlehead are “turtlebloom,” “snakehead,” “codhead,” “fishmouth,” “bitterherb,” “salt-rheum,” and “balmony.” It too was a popular herbal, and Native Americans used it as a tonic, laxative, and as a treatment for worms, jaundice, and tuberculosis.  One tribe, the Malecite Indians of the Canadian Maritime Provinces, employed it as a contraceptive.  Herbalist Charles Harris declared it good for “the removal of toxic sludge from the stomach and intestines.” I prefer its use as a Baltimore checkerspot food plant.

Orange jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) or touch-me-not grows along our mile-and-a-half long stream.  But it is a favorite deer food and is severely pruned by them as summer progresses.  But inside our three-acre deer exclosure in the bottom, wet area, it reached its full height and abundance last August.  Ruby-throated hummingbirds buzzed from blossom to blossom, their long bills pollinating the flowers by picking up their grains of white pollen from one flower and depositing them in another, all the while they were obtaining choice nectar.

Bumblebees, too, like jewelweed nectar, but they and other bees and wasps can’t reach it all inside the pendant-like blossom and often bite off the back of the flower to reach the nectar, which I’ve watched them do.  However, jewelweed doesn’t need to be pollinated by any creature because it has cleistogamous flowers (flowers than never open) that produce seeds, not enough, however, to cover the plant in flowers as the English discovered when they planted it in their gardens, where there are no hummingbirds, and called it “orange balsam” and “swing-boats,” the latter referring to its dangling flowers that also gave it the name “lady’s eardrops” and “jewelweed.”  “Snapweed” is a description of how the plant throws its seeds when you touch them, hence, “touch-me-not.”

Orange jewelweed

Orange jewelweed

Native Americans used it as a skin salve for eczema, athlete’s foot, and especially, poison ivy rash.  Our son, Dave, who is highly susceptible to poison ivy, has often rubbed the fresh leaves of jewelweed on affected areas, but apparently a better solution is to stuff any part of the plant and as much as possible into a pot of water and boil it for half an hour or more until the water turns deep orange.  Bottle and refrigerate it or freeze it for longer term use and spread it on the rash.  This herbal remedy works.

Not all the native wildflowers of August have herbal properties.  Some of my latest discoveries are merely interesting and occasionally striking such as spikenard (Aralia racemosa), which I found growing on our road bank. A member of the Ginseng family, round umbels of greenish-white flowers grow on a smooth, black stem and later clusters of dark purple fruit catch my attention when walking up our road.

On that same road bank, panicled hawkweed (Hieracium paniculatum) supports a yellow, dandelion-like blossom or two on horizontal stems.  Unlike the nonnative orange and yellow hawkweeds that grow in fields, panicled hawkweed is a woodland wildflower.

So too is smooth false foxglove (Gerardia laevigata), which is said to be parasitic on the roots of oak trees.  Its bell-shaped, golden flowers blossom on our Laurel Ridge Trail but are often nipped off by deer.  Still, a few manage to bloom every August.

Smooth yellow false foxglove, photographed on Laurel Ridge

Smooth yellow false foxglove, photographed on Laurel Ridge

Wood nettles (Laportea canadensis) have made a terrific comeback since our deer numbers have decreased.  From none to hundreds, maybe thousands of plants, which have spread from stream bank to road bank, they have bristly stems with stinging hairs as I discovered when I first examined the unknown (to me) plant several years ago.  Their branched, greenish flowers and alternate, egg-shaped leaves are their identifying characteristics.

All of these native August wildflowers, in some way, reflect the white-tailed deer that roam our square mile.  White snakeroot thrives because deer don’t eat it.  All of the others have increased, made a comeback, or debuted because we tried and succeeded in reducing our deer herd by using skilled and dedicated hunters who take between 38 and 45 deer off our square mile of property every year.

All photos by Dave Bonta. Click on them to see larger versions.