Earth Almanac

Earth Almanac

Forest clowns; desert drummers; color schemers; high-altitude acrobats; more.

By Ted Williams
Published: November-December 2011

1 | High-Country Acrobats

If you are out and about in western high country, from interior British Columbia to California and east to Texas, look and listen more carefully as chickadees hang from and hop along conifer branches, gleaning spiders and insect larvae from bark crevices. The familiar call seems hoarse. And the coloring--especially the white eyebrow and pale gray flanks--isn't quite right. These are not the ubiquitous black-capped chickadees of lower elevations; they're mountain chickadees. Because they rarely encounter humans, they appear friendly and inquisitive. Now, as winter sets in, mountain chickadees gather in flocks, sometimes with different species of similar size and behavior. Some of these flocks will move down to the foothills or lower. If they make it to your elevation, they'll come readily to sunflower seeds and suet. Most mountain chickadees, however, will tough out the winter in alpine and subalpine regions. As protein becomes harder to find they increasingly depend on conifer seeds, some of which they've cached for winter use. During outbreaks of tree-killing insects, mountain chickadees cheerfully switch diets, gorging on the reducers of their cone supply. During an outbreak of lodgepole needle miners in Arizona, one bird's stomach contained 275 larvae.

2 | Nutty Lanterns

If you live in the eastern United States and seek escape from winter chores or social posturing,

the bladdernut provides as good an excuse as any to haunt stream-laced forests. The light-green branches and smooth, gray-green bark of this multi-stemmed shrub (sometimes described as a small tree) brighten the scene in any season. From early to late spring it blooms with white, bell-shaped flowers tinged with green. In early summer it produces green seedpods that may reach a length of two inches and that turn brown and papery at the approach of autumn. Now, in the transition from fall to winter, they hang in clusters under lemon-yellow leaves. Although the plant gets its name from these pods, they look more like Chinese lanterns than bladders. Collect them for dried-flower arrangements. If you break open the three-pointed compartments, you'll find quarter-inch, glossy brown seeds that you can cook and eat like pistachio nuts or bake in chocolate-chip cookies as a substitute for walnuts.

3 | Forest Jesters

When early winter's chill and hush descends on coniferous and mixed hardwood forests across much of the United States and Canada, the red squirrel--also known as the pine squirrel, mountain boomer, and chickaree--provides color, sound, and comic relief. Now its fur is softer, thicker, longer, and a richer shade of red. And in the north it grows jaunty ear tufts. What this, one of our smallest tree squirrels, lacks in size it makes up for in brass. It is, in the words of nature writer Anita Nygaard, "a leaping, bounding, chattering gambol of energy and fury." When it's annoyed, which it is frequently, it will bark at an intruder, you included, for an hour. But this is only part of its personality. Unlike other squirrels, it delights in play, even when alone. Solitary games include tumbling on the ground, leaping wildly among branches, shaking while hanging by its hind feet, play-fighting with objects, and chasing its tail. Red squirrels are loudly possessive of their conifer-cone caches, or "middens," and with good reason. In one study they stole 26 percent of the cones they ate and lost 25 percent of the cones they cached. The year's young cannot survive unless they acquire a territory and midden before the onset of winter. Sometimes they acquire them on their own; other times they are given them by their mothers.

4 | Color Schemes

When the sun swings low and nights run long, most cold-blooded denizens of the western United States and northern Mexico hibernate or ratchet down their metabolisms. But except in this range's northern part, the aptly named side-blotched lizard stays active. Adult males, which measure about six inches from snout to tip of long, thin tail, come in three color morphs. Males with orange throats are bigger, stronger, and more dominant than males with blue or yellow throats. They defend large territories and large harems. But this prevents them from forming the strong pair bond with a female that the blue throats are capable of. And while an orange throat can run off a blue throat, the blue throat, because he's less aggressive, can cooperate with other blue-throated males and thereby run off an orange throat. Both orange and blue throats can run off yellow throats, but females also have yellow throats until they ovulate. So the androgynous yellow-throated males can sneak past the orange throats to mate with females. But because the blue throats know their mates so well, they aren't fooled by the yellow throats. Professor Barry Sinervo of the University of California at Santa Cruz, who has extensively researched the species, describes the evolutionary scheme as a game of rock, paper, scissors--the orange-throated rock defeats the blue-throated scissors by blunting or breaking; the blue-throated scissors defeats the yellow-throated paper by cutting; but the yellow-throated paper defeats the orange-throated rock by covering it.

5 | Desert Drum Majors

In the scrub deserts of our Southwest, Gambel's quail are gathering in winter coveys of 20 to 50 (occasionally 100 or more). Unlike other gallinaceous birds, Gambel's quail make scant effort to be secretive, parading instead with their covey mates across mesquite, desert thorn, and yucca flats. With their black top-knot plumes, gray backs, and rich chestnut flanking, the strutting males lack only batons to pass for miniature drum majors, and they call loudly from low branches. (To hear them, go to birds.cornell.edu/BOW/calqua/.) So difficult would it be for a Gambel's quail to conceal itself in the sparse desert cover that attempting to do so might be a waste of energy. However, like many creatures that evolved in the open, Gambel's quail are aggressive. When a roadrunner hungrily eyed one brooding hen's hatchlings, she was seen to fly at it and knock it off a wall. The species is named for its describer, William Gambel, who explored the Southwest in 1841. But the alternate name, desert quail, is more descriptive because no other quail is so well adapted to arid conditions. When necessary it can get the water it needs from succulent vegetation.

6 | Frosty Flowers

Long gone are the frostweed's white, daisy-like blossoms that provided a feast for butterflies and bees in shade-dappled woodlands and streamsides across the southeast and south-central United States. Now, with temperatures dipping below freezing, this tall, hardy perennial blooms again and in the most astonishing and spectacular fashion. When its sap freezes and expands, the stems burst, exuding the intricate and delicate ice formations that give the plant its name as well as the many alternates, including white crownbeard, ice flower, frost beard, frost ribbons, rabbit ice, and ice fingers. It's also known as Indian tobacco because American Indians smoked its leaves. The plant is easily cultivated and spreads quickly by rhizomes. Allow seedheads to dry on the plants, then harvest and clean the seeds. You can store them over the winter.

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Ted Williams

Ted Williams is freelance writer.

Type: Author | From: Audubon Magazine

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