Louisiana Waterthrush

Louisiana Waterthrush in North Carolina by Bill Majoros (Creative Commons BY-SA)

Louisiana Waterthrush in North Carolina by Bill Majoros (Creative Commons BY-SA)

Sometime in early April, I hear the ringing song of a Louisiana waterthrush near our Plummer’s Hollow stream. One of the first neotropical migrant birds to return, he comes winging in from as far south as northern South America and southern Cuba.

This handsome brown warbler, his whitish breast streaked with brown, looks more like a thrush than a warbler. Along with his congener, the northern waterthrush, the Louisiana waterthrush wades on long, pink legs in streams and bobs his tail and rear like a spotted sandpiper.

I spend a lot of time along our mile-and-a-half, first order stream, watching and listening to these fascinating birds. By mid-April there are usually four males staked out along the stream singing, defending their long, narrow territories and courting the returning females. It’s important to catch their singing early, though, because as soon as they pair up, the males slow down and almost stop singing.

A favorite place for waterthrushes is below our Waterthrush Bench, and last spring their activity was especially interesting. On April 18 I watched two singing waterthrushes bobbing their tails as each one tried to stay above the other when they landed on mossy logs, tree branches, and in the stream itself. They moved several hundred feet upstream before flying back down stream, and I wondered if they were two males in a territorial dispute or a pair involved in a courtship ritual.

Louisiana Waterthrush in Ohio by Matt Tillett (CC BY)

Louisiana Waterthrush in Ohio by Matt Tillett (CC BY)

The last day of April, as I sat on Waterthrush Bench, I watched a waterthrush as it poked about in the puddles of a backwater, pulling aside rotted leaves in what ornithologists call ”leaf pulls” as it searched for food. Although 89 to 98% of waterthrush feeding consists of quick, jab-like strokes called “picks,” “leaf pull” is an alternate strategy. In both cases, they are searching for aquatic insects and invertebrates. According to one study in northeastern Connecticut, before the leaves emerge waterthrushes engaged in “leaf pull” 42% of the time and “picks” 54%, but “leaf pulls” decreased and “picks” increased as their breeding season progressed and trees leafed out.

After my waterthrush stopped “leaf-pull,” it waded about belly-deep in the water. Then it flew up on a moss-covered log spanning the backwater to preen. All the while it preened its breast, neck, belly and under its tail, that tail kept pumping as regularly as a metronome.

Years ago, again on the last day of April, in the deepest part of the hollow, which is overhung with hemlock and beech trees, I walked quietly downstream and saw a pair of Louisiana waterthrushes in the water in front of me. They didn’t notice me when they turned over wet leaves in the stream. As I followed and watched, the male walked a couple yards behind the female. Unlike most warbler species, the male and female look alike, so I was relying on a description of this courtship tactic by ornithologists. The male made a “zizzing” sound and fed the female. Then they continued alternately foraging and poking at the stream bank. After I followed them for fifteen minutes, they suddenly saw me, chipped warning notes, and flew off.

Last spring, on the fourth of May, a Louisiana waterthrush swayed and scolded on a branch overhanging the road near Waterthrush Bench. Somewhere nearby in the road or stream bank there must have been a nest with eggs. I remembered my son Steve’s discovery a quarter of a century ago of a nest he found in the road bank as he walked up the road. The female flushed in front of him and performed her broken wing act. Following his description, I easily found the nest four feet from the ground, tucked in over a rock well-padded with dead leaves. An overturned sapling provided a roof above the five whitish eggs spotted with irregular brown spots that lay in a nest of dried grasses.

Louisiana Waterthrush nest by Todd W Pierson (CC BY-NC-SA)

Louisiana Waterthrush nest by Todd W Pierson (CC BY-NC-SA)

The nest had been built on the south side of the ravine by both parents. They dug a shallow cup in the bank’s soil and hauled in fallen leaves from the forest floor to fill the cup and provide a short pathway to the nest, a task that ornithologists say takes three to four days. Incubation by the female lasts 12 to 14 days and the altricial nestlings go from naked to fully feathered in nine or 10 days when they fledge. The nest Steve found did produce not only nestlings but fledglings, and I saw both the nestlings and their fledging.

Since then, we’ve never found another nest but suspect that most are along the stream bank and in the interstices of uprooted trees, which are the usual nesting places for Louisiana waterthrushes.

The bird that scolded me last May then waded into the stream and poked up food from the wet moss on the rocks or from the swiftly-flowing water. Like the dippers of the western United States, Louisiana waterthrushes are wedded to clean, running streams. It jabbed quietly in the crevices, living its enviable life in the moving water whose babble blocks out all other sounds.

Its affinity for water makes it an ideal species to use when assessing the ecological health of streams, researchers discovered at the Powdermill Nature Reserve in southwestern Pennsylvania. This biological field research station of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh is best known for its long-running, year-round, bird-banding program begun in 1961 by Robert Leberman.

Louisiana Waterthrush foraging in the Eno River, NC by Bill Majoros (CC BY-SA)

Louisiana Waterthrush foraging in the Eno River, NC by Bill Majoros (CC BY-SA)

Leberman’s assistant, Robert Mulvihill, now at the National Aviary in Pittsburgh, along with Leberman, chose the Louisiana Waterthrush as a model for looking at bird populations back in 1996. After all, two streams — Powdermill Run and Laurel Run — hosted Louisiana waterthrushes. But those two streams differed in one important aspect. Powdermill Run’s water has a neutral pH of 7, but Laurel Run’s was an acidic pH of 5, the result of acid mine drainage from a small, hand-dug coal mine on nearby private land.

More than 50 years after this 30-year-long disturbance, it still impacts Laurel Run despite the best efforts of a local watershed association that installed a Successive Alkalinity Producing System to filter water through organic material and limestone into a settling pond to lower the acidity and remove heavy metals, as well as an attempt by the Department of Environmental Protection, using bioremediation techniques, to further improve stream quality.

Consequently, Louisiana waterthrushes breed early and abundantly on Powdermill Run and late and sparsely on Laurel Run because of the lack of macroinvertebrates, especially caddisflies and mayflies, in the acidic Laurel Run. In fact, by 2009, no waterthrushes bred on Laurel Run, yet over the more than ten years of monitoring, Powdermill Run remains a hot bed of successful, breeding waterthrushes. Apparently, the availability of the proper food — namely macroinvertebrates that favor clean water — is very important for attracting breeding Louisiana waterthrushes.

This study also made some natural history discoveries about Louisiana waterthrushes, according to Mulvihill, who directed the research. The males of this supposedly single-brooded, monogamous species occasionally engage in opportunistic polygyny, defined as pairing with two females at the same time. Eight times during the study, waterthrush pairs re-nested or double brooded after their first successful fledging of young. One female that started out on Laurel Run in her first year of breeding, transferred to Powdermill Run and brought off successful families for at least eight years.

Louisiana Waterthrush by Big Dipper 2 (CC BY-NC-ND)

Louisiana Waterthrush by Big Dipper 2 (CC BY-NC-ND)

Today, Steven Latta, Director of Conservation and Field Research at the National Aviary, continues Louisiana waterthrush research, studying one of its wintering grounds in the Dominican Republic. He’s especially interested in how water quality there affects the survival of the birds and whether or not they return to their breeding grounds. He also wants to use the species to understand what affects neotropical bird populations throughout the year. He writes, in a recent article in Birding, that “in addition to acidification, breeding success is likely linked to sedimentation and other forms of stream contamination, combined with the loss of surrounding vegetative cover in the riparian corridor… Preliminary results suggest that older, more mature forests with relatively high canopy cover, coupled with perennial streams that do not run dry in mid-summer droughts, are key drivers to reproductive success for such bird species.”

Back at Powdermill, scientists are now concerned about the impacts of natural gas drilling on water quality, macroinvertebrates and Louisiana waterthrushes. And they have joined other ornithologists in the state to study the affects of hydraulic fracturing on streams throughout Pennsylvania. They hope that birders will help by counting waterthrushes along streams and reporting their numbers to their local watershed association. Two territories per kilometer are considered a healthy number of waterthrushes along a stream.

Louisiana and northern waterthrushes were once lumped along with ovenbirds into the genus Sieurus, which means “to shake or move the tail,” but for decades Dr. Kenneth C. Parkes, the late curator of birds at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, argued that the waterthrushes should be separated from ovenbirds. They differ too much in behavior, singing, structure, the way they move, their juvenile plumage and how long they keep it, as well as other differences that only ornithologists could sort out.

Louisiana Waterthrush shows a very wide and long white line over its eye - photo by Ken Schneider (CC BY-NC-SA)

Louisiana Waterthrush shows a very wide and long white line over its eye - photo by Ken Schneider (CC BY-NC-SA)

It took a Ph.D student in the Molecular Systematics Laboratory at the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm, George Sangster, who admired Parkes’s work, to prove his point. Using genetic analyses, he discovered that ovenbirds were only distantly related to waterthrushes.

On the strength of his work, the North American Classification Committee of the American Ornithologist’s Union agreed to put the waterthrushes in their own genus. Furthermore, they accepted Sangster’s name — Parkesia — in honor of Kenneth C. Parkes because of “his lasting contributions to avian taxonomy, molt terminology, hybridization and faunistics.”

Sangster finished his manuscript about his discovery in the Bulletin of the British Ornithologists’ Club in late July of 2007 and “hoped to inform Dr. Parkes about my intention of naming a genus after him,” Sangster told Paul Hess who wrote about this in PSO Pileated, The Newsletter of the Pennsylvania Society for Ornithology. “It was when I looked on the Internet for a contacting address that I found out that he had passed away only a week before.”

Only three other Pennsylvanians have been honored with a bird genus — William Bartram, Thomas Say, and Alexander Wilson. All of them lived and worked in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and all were residents of Philadelphia.

How sad that Parkes never knew of his genus. But how serendipitous that one of the species Leberman and Mulvihill decided to study at Powdermill has not only become important in stream ecology but also honors a fellow western Pennsylvanian who, like them, devoted his life to the study of birds.

The late Dr. Kenneth C. Parkes (left) and Robert Mulvihill at Donegal Lake near Powdermill, 1982

The late Dr. Kenneth C. Parkes (left) and Robert Mulvihill at Donegal Lake near Powdermill, 1982


Grasses Wear Robes

learning a new grass

learning a new grass

We never get very far when we go on a Pennsylvania Native Plant Society field trip.  But we always learn and see more than we bargained for.  Take the grass field trip to Rothrock State Forest in central Pennsylvania that my son Dave and I joined last July.  Let by Sarah Miller of the Penn State Cooperative Wetlands Center, who is an expert on wetland plants and ecology, fourteen people from as far away as Lewisburg rendezvoused with her along Pine Swamp Road deep in the heart of the forest.  When Miller handed us the draft of a key she had devised entitled “Do I Have a Grass, Sedge or Rush,” we realized that we would be identifying not only the grasses but also the sedges and rushes along the trail.

A quick glance at the intricately-designed five sheets of paper, and I knew that my dependence on the old jingle, “Sedges have edges and rushes are round and grasses are hollow and move all around,” would not suffice.  In truth, I always forget what grasses are in that jingle so later I googled it on the Internet.  Apparently, I’m not the only one who can’t remember the exact wording of the grasses part because I found several versions of it including “grasses have nodes from the top to the ground,” “grasses are hollow right up from the ground,” and “grasses wear robes all the way to the ground.”

Despite the multiple versions of the grass line in the jingle, it turns out that they are the easiest to sort out.  If the stems are round, hollow, and jointed, with its leaves 2-ranked or 2-dimensional when viewed from above, it is a member of Poaceae — the Grass family.

three-way sedge

three-way sedge

Sedges and rushes, on the other hand, are not as simple as the jingle implies and, in fact, took up the remainder of Miller’s key. For instance, the three-way sedge — Dulichium arundinaceum — which is common in bogs, swamps, marshes, lake margins and ditches, shares all the same characteristics as a grass except that its leaves are 3-ranked or 3-dimensional.

Still, there were several botanical terms I had to absorb as Miller launched into her identification of a couple grasses growing beside the road.  “Node,” it turns out, is another word for the joints on a grass stem, which is called a “culm.”  Those 2-ranked, alternate, parallel-veined leaves of grasses have two parts, the “sheath,” which surrounds the culm, and the “blade” which sticks out from the culm. Where the blade joins the sheath at the culm, on the inside usually is a papery structure or ring of hairs called a “ligule.”

I should have identified the first grass Miller showed us, but I was so intent on grasping the botanical terms that I didn’t even recognize the notorious Japanese stiltgrass until Miller named it.  Also known as “Nepalese browntop,” “Mary’s grass,” “Nepal grass,” and “Japanese grass,” Japanese stiltgrass, Microstegium vimineum, was accidentally introduced into the United States in Tennessee, probably because the dried grass was used as packing material for porcelain.  Since then, this invasive has spread to eastern states from New York to Florida.

Japanese stiltgrass in late September, Plummer's Hollow

Japanese stiltgrass in late September, Plummer's Hollow

Japanese stiltgrass thrives in disturbed areas.  In the last several years, it has invaded the poorly-logged portion of our property that we purchased after it was cut 18 years ago.  It spreads both by rooting at its nodes and by its seeds.  Each plant produces between 100 and 1000 seeds that remain viable in the soil for at least three years.  A native of not only Japan, but also Korea, China, Malaysia, and India, it seems to thrive in eastern North America almost everywhere from forests to fields, wetlands to roadside ditches, gas and powerline corridors to lawns and gardens.

Japanese stiltgrass doesn’t flower until late summer or early fall, but it was easy enough to identify the silvery stripe of reflective hairs down the middle of the upper surface of its alternately-arranged, asymmetrical, lance-shaped leaves.

To identify the next grass, the terminology was even more complex for my aging brain to grasp, and I never did sort it out until much later when I sat down with Agnes Chase’s excellent First Book of Grasses. First published in 1922, the Smithsonian Institution printed a third edition in 1959 in honor of Chase’s ninetieth birthday. My own 1977 hardcover copy was the second reprint of that edition. Despite nearly 60 years engaged in productive scientific work that resulted in more than 70 scientific papers, she is best know for this little gem of a book.

Chase was a self-taught botanist, but she became the dean of agrostology (grasses) after many years at the United States Department of Agriculture working for Albert Spear Hitchcock. She helped him compile the Manual of the Grasses of the United States, which she illustrated lavishly with her drawings, and then she revised all 1040 pages of the book after his death.

She also made two exploring trips to Brazil and another to Venezuela in the 1920s and 30s when she was in her fifties and sixties.  Botanical collector Ynes Mexia, who spent a couple days collecting with her in Brazil, described her as “almost a human grass, who lives, sleeps, dreams nothing but grasses…”

Chase’s clear drawings and explanatory material finally made sense of Miller’s insistence that we must look carefully at a grass flower in order to identify it.  A grass spikelet is the equivalent of a leafy flowering branch and consists of the flowers themselves or “florets,” which are held in the axils of small green bracts called “lemmas.”  They, in turn, are enclosed in a second bract — the “palea.” The equivalent of a stem is called a “rachilla.”  Below the grass flowers are two bracts without flowers — the “glumes.” All of these terms are important because often a grass can only be identified by its spikelets and their arrangements, for example, the shape of the glumes and the lemmas.

As we worked our way through the next grass, examining the spikelets in detail, Miller eventually identified it as Poa trivialis or rough bluegrass, a native of Europe but often cultivated here and found in wet meadows, swamps, and wet forests.

Rattlesnake Manna Grass, by Petroglyph on Flickr (CC BY-NC license)

Rattlesnake Manna Grass, by Petroglyph on Flickr (CC BY-NC license)

Another spikelet she showed us was that of poverty grass, Danthonia spicata, in which a long hair emerged from between a pair of stiff hairs or teeth at the tip of each floret.  And we admired the wavy branches of rattlesnake mannagrass, Glyceria canadensis — an easy way to identify this distinctive wetland grass.

We shuffled onward as folks stopped to look at every grass, sedge, and rush.  Rushes (Family Juncaceae), Miller told us, have miniature flowers with three petals and three sepals, an arrangement called “tepals” that enclose a capsule containing three or more seeds.  As an example, she showed us soft rush, Juncus effusus. This perennial native has densely-clustered stems and clumps of flowers that grow from the side of the stem.

Because the flowers of the soft rush “are individual, they are prophyllate, if they are in heads, they are eprophyllate,” according to Miller’s key, and that’s where the botanical terminology defeated me.  I knew I would need many more hours to sort out and memorize words I had always avoided.

I had never had a botany course and tended to rely on pictorial field guides to identify wildflowers as well as the more common grasses, sedges, and rushes with the help of Ernest Knobel’s Field Guide to the Grasses, Sedges and Rushes of the United States and Lauren Brown’s Grasses, which also includes sedges and rushes.  For an amateur like me these guides are invaluable. Still, they do take some work and occasional glances at botanical glossaries.

The rest of the plants we looked at were sedges (Family Cyperaceae), which usually have triangular solid stems, small flowers, and 1-seeded fruits or nutlets that are often called “achenes.” There are 15 genera of sedges in Pennsylvania, 160 species of which are in the genus Carex.  This is, by far, the largest genus of flowering plants in the state.  A couple that we saw with Miller was Carex folliculata and Carex torta, both common, native, wetland perennials and both known commonly as “sedge.”

We also looked at Scirpus cyperinus, another sedge with the common name “wool-grass,” which should explain why botanists prefer to use the scientific names.  Other members of the Scirpus genus also have variations on the name “bulrush,” even though they are neither grasses nor rushes.

Botanizing at the Beaver Dam in Rothrock State Forest

Botanizing at the Beaver Dam in Rothrock State Forest

After more than an hour, we reached the Beaver Dam as the wetland is known by the locals.  Miller called our attention to another grass, Calamagrostis canadensis or Canada bluejoint, a denizen of bogs and swamps, as some of us deftly moved from sphagnum hummock to sphagnum hummock over the former impoundment and tried to avoid the places where knee-deep water flowed swiftly.

But one elderly man, in an attempt to catch a praying mantis, fell into the water.

“Bob’s down,” son Dave said.  “Are you okay?”

As if in answer, he scrambled to his feet and showed us the mantis he held between forefinger and thumb.  This was, after all, a group of amateur naturalists interested in every aspect of the natural world.

Next, a younger woman plunged in up to her knees and emerged muddy but cheerful.  After that, we were even more careful.

Then Miller showed us another grass.

“It’s a Panicum,” she said.

“What is the species?” I asked.

“I have no idea.  I have trouble with Panicum,” she answered.  With that honest reply from an expert, I felt better about procrastinating trying to learn all the grasses, sedges, and rushes even on our mostly dry, mountaintop property.  The least I could do, I resolved, was identify those plants.

ebony jewelwing damselfly at the Beaver Dam

ebony jewelwing damselfly at the Beaver Dam

The Beaver Dam wetland is a lovely place.  Masses of purple steeplebush bloomed in the middle of it, and we knelt in the mud to examine the delicate flowers of blooming sundews with our hand lens. Ebony jewelwing damselflies flitted over the water, a wide expanse of cotton grass grew on the far side of the wetland, and large white pines towered over its edges.

But I was distressed to see the telltale tire marks of an all-terrain vehicle imprinted in the mud.  It had been driven heedlessly through the sedges and rushes.  Such incursions, especially in wetlands and along streambeds, continue to destroy habitat and frustrate those of us who value such places.

At last, we were marshaled back to our cars, and off we went.  But the adventure was not over.  The lead car suddenly braked to avoid a tiny porcupette crossing the road.  Everyone stopped their cars and rushed to get a better look at it as it scurried into the underbrush.  Son Dave scared it up a tree, which it looked as if it was climbing for the first time. At the first branch, barely six feet from the ground, it paused to rest, and eager naturalists and photographers gathered around to admire and take its picture. Only Dave had ever seen one before and that was on our property several years ago.

Then, farther along, at the side of the road, Dave spotted a wood lily (Lilium philadelphicum) in bloom.  By that time, our car was on its own.  All four of us got out to photograph that gorgeous, deep orange, purple-spotted wildflower standing erect on a stem above whorled leaves.  This last, unexpected floral gift from Rothrock State Forest ended our grass field trip on a high note.

Lilium philadelphicum

Lilium philadelphicum

All photos were taken by Dave on the day of the outing, except where noted otherwise.

Chasing Beetles

locust borerFor most of his life, our son Steve has had a serious case of beetle mania. By the time he was five he knew more about insects in general and beetles in particular than I did. Of course, that’s not saying much. I’ve always specialized in the colorful, charismatic insects such as butterflies, praying mantises, and walkingsticks, although when Steve showed me my first eyed click beetle (Alaus oculatus), with big, black, false eyes on its thorax, I was impressed. But not impressed enough to make my own study of beetles. I let that up to him.And over nearly four decades, he has forged ahead, aided and abetted by his friend Sam Wells who has a Ph.D. in entomology. (Steve’s Ph.D. is in linguistics.) But beetle collecting has remained his avocation, and he and Wells have amassed an enormous collection.

Wells’ specialty is click beetles, and when he discovered a new species on St. Simon’s Island, Georgia, he named it for Steve. “Horistonotus bontai is named in honor of Steve Bonta,” Wells wrote in the Proceedings of the Entomological Society of Washington, “a colleague and student of the Coleoptera [beetles] who has supported my research on click beetles.”

During Steve’s linguistics studies in south India and Sri Lanka, he managed to find time to collect beetles. And last summer he and Wells went on an official collecting trip to Honduras. Steve returned enthusiastic about the specimens they had found there, but he was equally enthusiastic about surveying the beetle species on our property. As a boy in the 1970s, he had studied and collected beetles here, and he was particularly interested in re-finding the same species and discovering new ones. His not-so-hidden agenda was to get me involved in the project.

fungus beetle on varnish shelfThat’s why, on an overcast, humid day in late August, I met him halfway down our hollow road. Even though he’s now six foot, three inches tall, I could still see the little boy he once was as he held his bug net in one hand and a large, black beetle in the other. Slightly over an inch long, it was a hermit flower beetle Osmoderma eremicola, one of the largest beetle species on our property. A member of the Family Scarabaeidae, this beetle is one of approximately 1375 scarab species living in North America. Steve had found it crawling on the ground and told me that it eats leaves. Rotten logs harbor its large, white larva–a sausage-fat grub that we later found in a tulip tree log.

“The ‘ick’ factor is great in this species,” Steve said. An understatement as far as I was concerned. But when I looked it up on the web, I discovered aficionados of Osmoderma eremicola who gave precise directions on how to raise this “neat, bulky beetle” from larva to adult on a diet of rotten wood, old leaves, dog food, and compost.

“The sheer biological success of beetles outstrips every living thing,” Steve enthused as we walked along. “Maybe one reason is because of their body shape and makeup. Two of their four wings evolved to plates of armor on the outside.”Beetles belong to the Order Coleoptera, which is Greek for “sheath wings.” Although beetles have two sets of wings like other insects, their front wings are hardened plates that protect their flying wings and body from predators.

And beetles are common. One in four of the known species on Earth is a beetle–350,000 species and counting. They are also ancient. Before dinosaurs there were beetles, but once dinosaurs disappeared and flowering plants proliferated, so did beetle diversity. That’s because most beetles subsist on flowers and plant foliage, and the more diverse the plants, in the tropics, for instance, the more diverse the beetles.

We continued on our beetle foray, which meant, Steve informed me, inspecting rotten logs, “one of the best places to find beetles,” along with fungi and feces. Luckily, we didn’t find any of the latter.

Under the bark of a rotting log, Steve found rove beetles, members of the largest North American beetle Family Staphylinidae with nearly 3100 species.

longhorns mating on wild hydrangea“Their elytra [wings] are much shorter than their abdomens,” Steve said. “They don’t look like beetles.”

The rove beetles were so small I whipped out my hand lens to examine one more closely. Only then could I see those shorter wings and protruding abdomens. To be honest, I hadn’t even noticed the tiny beetles when he ripped off the bark, but Steve’s incredibly sharp, birder’s eyes had.

He also showed me a dark orange wire worm that is the larva of a click beetle, a millipede and its pile of frass, which consists of the remains of bark that it eats, and another beetle, even tinier than the rove beetle–the cerylonid beetle Cerylon castaneum. A member of the Family Cerylonidae, it does not have a common name. Only 18 species of these beetles live in North America, and because they are tiny and secretive, scientists don’t know much about them except that they are plentiful in forest litter and under bark.

Along with all the insects under the bark, we also found an insect gourmand, a golden-backed, mountain dusky salamander–Desmognathus ochrophaeus–whose favorite foods include beetles and beetle larvae, worms, fly larvae, sowbugs, snails, ants, mites, springtails, spiders, and caterpillars. Its favorite habitat during the summer is a moist deciduous or mixed hardwood-coniferous forest near a stream, such as we were in.

But eventually we left the hemlock/hardwood forest beside our stream and headed up Pit Mound Trail to Ten Springs Trail, where the trees are young and striped maple saplings dominate the understory. Steve immediately began a paean of praise for striped maple trees because both click and soldier beetles like to sun themselves on striped maple leaves, especially in early summer. Since it was then late summer, he didn’t find any examples, but I was happy to hear a good word in favor of a tree species often belittled by foresters, especially because I like its green and white striped bark, lovely, dangling flowers, and big, shiny leaves.

scarab beetle larvaIn the old garden of our long-deceased neighbor, Margaret, lay several wild black cherry logs.”Now black cherry logs usually have a nice selection of beetles,” Steve said. But he found only ants under one dry section, and beetles like moist conditions.

“Generally beetles avoid portions of logs that have ants because ants prey on beetles,” he explained.

As he walked on, I idly pulled the bark off farther along the log where it was still moist despite the recent drought and discovered what Steve had been searching for, the Pennsylvania darkling beetle Alobates pennsylvanica, the largest and one of the most common darkling beetles in the eastern United States. Ungainly and slow-moving, it lives under the loose bark of dead trees, logs, or stumps. A member of the Tenebrionidae Family, it is one of 1300 species found in North America. To my untrained eyes, it looked like just another big, black beetle and much like the first big, black beetle Steve had showed me.

The wild oregano I had given Margaret a quarter of a century ago had spread throughout her yard, and its small, orchid-colored flowers swarmed with nectaring butterflies. It had also attracted the first colorful beetle of the day, the Pennsylvania soldier beetle Chauliognathus pennsylvanicus of the Family Cantharidae. Dozens of these yellow and black beetles sporting elegant, long antennae, crawled over the wild oregano. This same species is common on goldenrod and is one of 455 North American species in its family.

Steve also pointed out tiny black leaf beetles in the Chrysomelidae family, the fourth largest beetle family in the world, of which there are 1474 species in North America. This species too likes goldenrod, as we discovered when we reached First Field, which was aglow with five species of goldenrod. In addition, the goldenrod contained tiny, oval-shaped, shining mold beetles (Stilbus apicalis) in the Family Phalacridae as well as one of my favorite beetles, the pink-legged, black and yellow locust borers (Megacyllene robiniae), a longhorned beetle of the Family Cerambycidae.

Longhorned beetles have some of the showiest members of the beetle Order. “You can judge the diversity of a forest by longhorned beetle diversity,” Steve said. “The Coleoptera glory in the eastern United States are the longhorned beetles,” and he hopes over the next couple of years to find as many species of them as possible on our property.

blister beetle backsideAs part of his campaign to get me involved in collecting longhorned beetles, he later gifted me with a Field Guide to the Northeastern Longhorned Beetles by Douglas Yanega and published by the Illinois Natural History Survey. Filled with colored plates, Steve described the book as “all you’ll ever need to identify longhorned beetles.” Well, maybe. But what about all the other likely beetle species on our property?

During our walk, we had seen representatives of eight of the 98 beetle families, listed in Beetles, a Peterson field guide by Richard E. White, and already my head was whirling. To further confuse me, he told me of a few interesting beetle discoveries he’s already made here.

In early summer, he had found the false longhorned beetle Cephaloon lepturides of the Family Cephaloidae, which has only 10 North American species. This species is also a flower and foliage denizen, although its larva lives in decaying forest logs, and it is known (among entomologists) for its stout, comb-like claws.

Back on May 28, 2006, a false click beetle Melasis pectinicornis had come to the light on our veranda. One of the 67 North American species in the Family Eucnemidae, it has brush-like “horns” on its antennae.

He also collected 15 species of tumbling flower beetles, 10 of which he found on the wild hydrangea growing on our road bank down in the hollow. Members of the Family Mordellidae, there are approximately 204 species in North America.

Best of all was the rare beetle Steve had found near a huge, old, rotten oak log at the edge of the Far Field, a reticulated beetle of the Family Cupedidae, the most primitive of all the beetle families. According to White in Beetles, “Fossil cupedids from upper Permian deposits (about 200 million years ago) are the oldest known remains of beetles that belong to a living family.” Today that family contains four North American species including Steve’s discovery here–Cupes capitatus. We also have the most common cupedid species in the eastern United States–Tenomerga concolor. Both larvae and adults feed in moist, rotting softwoods and hardwoods, especially oak, chestnut, and apple trees.

Cicindela ancocisconensis, the Appalachian tiger beetleAfter our walk, totally confused by the many species we had seen or discussed, I remembered what my husband Bruce had said about Steve when he was five years old and had appropriated my new Peterson Field Guide to the Insects of America North of Mexico by Donald J. Borror and Richard E. White.

“He already knows more than me about insects, and I’m not even going to try to keep up with him.”

Me neither.

All photos by Dave Bonta. Mouse-over for i.d.s, or click on photos to see larger originals.

What’s in a Name?

After a brief walk on a cold and dreary January day, I curled up in my study and tried to update Bioplum, a natural inventory of our property. Last spring I had finally identified a nondescript-looking wildflower spreading along our roadbank as Pennsylvania bittercress (Cardamine pensylvanica), and I wanted to add it to our list of wildflowers along with several other new species. But I was sidetracked by what I thought was a simple question. How many other plants and animals have “Pennsylvania” in their common and/or scientific names?

An exhaustive search in my books and on the Internet stretched into several afternoons. But I found 18 plants, including four tree species, nine insects, a mammal, bird and mollusk. Of those, two species have never lived in Pennsylvania and two have been re-named in some sources. According to Bioplum, at least 13 of the species live on our mountain.

As usual, the plant classifications caused me the most headaches, especially the wildflowers. With the help of The Plants of Pennsylvania by Ann Fowler Rhoads and Timothy A. Block, in addition to Pennsylvania bittercress, I found Polygonum pensylvanicum (Pennsylvania smartweed or pinkweed) that blankets our cut trails in summer, Parietaria pensylvanica (pellitory), Ranunculus pensylvanicus (bristly crowfoot), and Saxifraga pensylvanica (swamp or Pennsylvania saxifrage), none of which grow on our mountain.

But where was Viola pensylvanica or smooth yellow violet that grows along our stream and around our exclosure? While some botanical sites on the Internet still listed it as Viola pensylvanica, Rhoads and Block consider it a variety of V. pubescens, the downy yellow violet. They call it V.pubescens var. scabriuscula. No doubt that is probably the now acceptable classification for V. pensylvanica because scientific names are usually changed only if taxonomists determine a mistake has been made in the original classification of a plant. But since I’ve always had a great fondness for V. pensylvanica and have considered its common name pedestrian, I prefer “Pennsylvania violet.” After all, common names often depend on local tradition and back in 1796, when our property was constantly changing hands, it was called “Violet Hill,” a more evocative name than today’s “Brush Mountain.” To celebrate the original name of our mountain, I decided that from now on, at least on our property, smooth yellow violet will be called Pennsylvania violet.

Another wildflower that baffled me was Gnaphalium pensylvanicum or Gamochaeta pensylvanica, popularly called Pennsylvania cudweed, Pennsylvania everlasting or wandering cudweed according to a variety of Internet sources including a floristic database from Taiwan and another from western Australia. No wonder it’s called “wandering cudweed.” A native of the Americas, it has spread to eastern and southern Asia. Rhoads and Block list five cudwell species under the genus Gnaphalium, but none of them are pensylvanica or pensylvanicum, both of which mean “of Pennsylvania.”

Still another problem was Potentilla pensylvanica var. strigosa, known as Pennsylvania cinquefoil, which, according to Edward G. Voss in Michigan Flora, grows mostly west and north of the Great Lakes. Not satisfied with that explanation, I tracked it down on a USDA site with range maps where I discovered that Pennsylvania cinquefoil grows no farther south in the northeastern United States than Vermont and New Hampshire. Then it skips out to Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Michigan, but not Wisconsin, and on through the Midwest and western United States. However, it is a threatened plant in Iowa.

Like many of our plants, P. pensylvanica was originally named by Swedish naturalist and taxonomist Carolus Linnaeus, who received thousands of plants throughout the world from field botanists in the eighteenth century. Perhaps P. pensylvanica had been part of a shipment of plants from Pennsylvania, not all of which had actually been collected here. For instance, John Bartram, a Quaker naturalist from Philadelphia and the King’s Botanist who Linnaeus called the “greatest natural botanist in the world,” had traveled as far north as Lake Ontario, as far south as Florida, and as far west as the Ohio River and had shipped thousands of plants abroad, both old and new discoveries. We also seem to have lost the only fern that had pensylvanica as its species’ name–the beautiful ostrich fern that grows down by the river. Still known as Struthiopteris pensylvanica in some sources and Matteuccia pensylvanica in John T. Mickel’s Ferns and Fern Allies, Rhoads and Block call it Matteuccia struthiopteris.

The Pennsylvania-named sedges, grasses, and rushes have all retained their names. Pennsylvania sedge, Penn sedge, or yellow sedge is Carex pensylvanica. Swamp-oats or swamp wedgescale has two apparently acceptable scientific names–Sphenopholis pensylvanica or Trisetum pensylvanicum. Pennsylvania sedge is a common species that grows in dry, open woods and wooded slopes, including ours, but swamp-oats prefers swamps, wet woods, or springy meadows in southeastern and southcentral Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania rush or Coville’s rush is Juncus gymnocarpus and is a rare species found “in sphagnous swamps, seeps, and springheads; mostly in or near Schuylkill County,” according to Rhoads and Block.

Of course, I was pleased to learn that one of my favorite fruits–the blackberry–has one species named Rubus pensilvanicus, although that name may eventually be lost because Rhoads and Block write that “the taxonomy of Rubus, especially the blackberries, is complicated…[and] more study is needed to resolve the status of the many species that have been described over the years.”

Well, at least the northern bayberry, Myrica pensylvanica, looks safe. But wait! Rhoads and Block have a parenthetical comment about this deciduous shrub. “[Wilbur (1994) places M. pensylvanica in the segregate Morella as M. caroliniensis….]” We can only hope that Wilbur’s name is not generally accepted, although admittedly the aromatic bayberry, beloved of candlemakers, is primarily a denizen of sandy shore dunes along the Atlantic Ocean. But it also grows along the Lake Erie shoreline and the borders of Pymatuning Swamp in northwestern Pennsylvania.

Thank goodness the Pennsylvania trees seem secure. Best known is Acer pensylvanicum, the striped maple, also called “moosewood” because moose like to browse on it. White-tailed deer are not supposed to, although during the winter here they do eat it. Striped maple is a personal favorite of mine because of its attractive white-striped greenish bark, beautiful yellow-green drooping flowers, and the bright gold its leaves turn in the autumn.

Prunus pensylvanica, the pin or fire cherry, grows on our rockslides as a small tree and on the cliffs beside the railroad tracks where it reaches a respectable size. It too has distinctive bark–“smooth, reddish-brown with conspicuous horizontal, orange lenticels,” according to the sumptuous Trees of Pennsylvania by Rhoads and Block, the same botanical pair that gave us The Plants of Pennsylvania. A stunning book filled with closeup color photos of the bark, flowers, and seeds of almost every tree species, along with range maps, the Trees of Pennsylvania also contains an excellent glossary that defines “lenticel” as “a corky growth on the surface of a twig through which gas exchange occurs.” As tree-lovers, my husband, Bruce, son Dave and I have spent many happy hours browsing through this informative book.

Fraxinus pensylvanica, the green ash, does not grow on our mountain probably because it likes wet woods, lowland stream banks and moist fields. “Native Americans,” Rhoads and Block write, “used an infusion of the inner bark as a tonic to treat depression and fatigue.”

As far as we know, we also don’t have Crataegus pennsylvanica, the Pennsylvania hawthorn. But then hawthorns are notoriously difficult to identify, “even for professional botanists,” Rhoads and Block admit. It’s also comparatively rare, even globally, having been found only in southern Ontario, New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware and West Virginia. But it does grow in several sites in southern Pennsylvania.

Our only “Pennsylvania” mammal, the meadow vole (Microtus pennsylvanicus), is abundant throughout the state. Popularly known as the “field mouse,” its runways through long field grasses and weeds are especially noticeable in our First and Far fields during the winter. The most common vole species throughout North America, its plump body provides food for a wide variety of birds and animals from black bears to great blue herons.

Dendroica pensylvanica, the chestnut-sided warbler, sings “please please please ta meetcha,” and so we are pleased to meet this handsome bird named for the thick chestnut streak on each side of its breast. It likes early-successional forests for breeding and spends its summers throughout our state.

Strangely enough, Linnaeus also named a marine mollusk for our state, Lucina pensylvanica or the Pennsylvania lucine back in 1758.

Finally, the insects, one of which–Vespula pensylvanica, the western yellow jacket, is not found in the eastern United States. No one knows why it was named the Pennsylvania yellow jacket.

But we do have two other species of the Hymenoptera Order–the Pennsylvania wasp (Sphex pensylvanicus) and the Pennsylvania bumblebee (Bombus pensylvanicus). The latter appears to be, from photographs on the Web, the plump, yellow and black bumblebee that I see on our wild and domestic flowers.

The remaining five of the Pennsylvania-named insects are beetles, which is not surprising since beetles are among the most diverse and abundant life forms on earth. Its Order–Coleoptera–is also the largest insect order with 111 families. The Peterson Field Guide Beetles by Richard C. White identifies only to insect families, the classification above genus and species, because there are too many North American beetle species to identify in one field guide.

But he does mention some well-known species such as Colliurus pensylvanica the distinctive Pennsylvania long-necked ground beetle with its triangular-shaped black head and greatly-elongated prothorax (the first of three body segments that holds the wings and legs). Its thorax is black-spotted on an orange background. Steve, our eldest son and now resident amateur entomologist who specializes in beetles, has found this species, which occurs over much of North America, on our property.

Chlaenius pensylvanicus pensylvanicus and Pterostichus pensylvanicus are ground beetles and, like the Pennsylvania long-necked ground beetles are in the Carabidae family, whereas Chauliognathus pensylvanicus, a soldier beetle, is in the Cantharidae family and is the brilliant orange and black beetle that is abundant on our goldenrod in late summer.

Steve has also listed Photuris pensylvanicus, the Pennsylvania firefly, in Bioplum. A member of the Lampyridae family, it is one of 20 Photuris species in the eastern United States and is a beetle, not a fly. Watching fireflies on June and July is one of my favorite pastimes and a reason to be glad that I live in the eastern United States. The West, for all its grandeur, doesn’t have these charismatic insects.

Epicauta pensylvanica, the black blister beetle in the Meloidae family, also inhabits our goldenrod. Like all blister beetles, when it is disturbed, it emits “blood” from its knee joints and other body parts that can raise blisters on the skin and deters some predators such as birds and ground beetles.

No doubt I have missed many other Pennsylvania-named insect species, but since I was bug-eyed (no pun intended) after hours on the Internet looking up the literally thousands of references to pensylvanica, pensylvanicus, and pensylvanicum, I left it at an even 30 species. Next time I’ll deal with all the Philadelphia species! Think Philadelphia vireo (Vireo philadelphicus), rock sea bass (Centropristis philadelphica), dogwood calligrapha (Calligraph philadelphica), and mourning warbler (Opornis philadelphia), among others. The possibilities are almost endless for whiling away the long winter hours.