Bitternut Hickory: Searching for a Better Name

I was standing under a Bitternut Hickory tree the other day in Eliza Howell Park when a falling nut hit me on the head. It wasn’t quite an “aha moment” – as in the story of Newton, the falling apple, and gravity – but it somehow reinforced my intent to find a better name for this tree.

In October, Carya cordiformis, the tree usually known as “Bitternut Hickory,” gets my attention for a stately golden beauty.

20191021_160219

It is not unusual for the common name of a tree species to be based on the appearance or characteristic or use of the tree or its fruit – for example, Shagbark Hickory, Black Cherry, Kentucky Coffee Tree. That seems different, though, from a name that is based on a judgment of the tastiness of the fruit.

Tastes vary, but the name suggest that no one will like the fruit, with the possible result that people will not even pick up a few for their own taste test.

20191021_125308

Deciding that I preferred a name that is more descriptive of the plant and less a commentary on the quality of the nut as food, I began to look for possibilities. The “cordiformis” in the scientific name means “heart shaped.” This refers, I would think, to the shape of the nut. I don’t know if that would be a good common name, but I have not  seen that name used in English.

As a tree and as a fruit, “Bitternut Hickory” is often compared with Shagbark Hickory. The common name Shagbark is, of course, based on the bark. The bark of “Bitternut” is smoother than that Shagbark, but there is little about the bark that suggests a name – and I have not seen any attempts at such naming. In the picture, Shagbark is on the left, “Bitternut” on the right.

20191022_093505

Based on what I have been seeing this month, my personal preference for the name would be something like “Golden Hickory.”

20191020_153744

Unfortunately, this name does not appear in any of the articles or reports on the species.

Another characteristic of the species – and one I often use for identification – is that the husk of the nut has four narrow ridges that extend down from the outer tip.

20191021_160614

“Ridged Hickory” might be acceptable name, but I have not been able to find anyone calling it that.

There are two English names besides “Bitternut” that are sometimes used in the published accounts: “Yellow Bud Hickory” and “Swamp Hickory.” “Swamp” seems to me to more misleading than helpful; the tree is found in many locations that are not swamp.

“Yellow Bud” is based on the fact that the winter bud is yellowish, a distinguishing characteristic. I confess that I have not paid particular attention to this fact and do not have a single picture of the bud. However, the name is based on an identifying characteristic of the species and has been used enough that searching under this name will bring up the right information.

A picture of a Yellow Bud Hickory in Eliza Howell in October:

20191021_155843

I think my search for an alternative name to “Bitternut” may be over. I plan to use “Yellow Bud” from now on. And this winter I will pay attention to the buds.

Advertisements

Poison Ivy on Cottonwood: Taking A Good Look

In early to mid-October in Eliza Howell Park, before most other plants had reached their Fall color peak, Poison Ivy gets my attention. It adds color to the trunks of trees and the fruit attracts birds.

The vine climbs many of the Cottonwood trees inside the road loop, where it is easy to get a good look.

20191014_105627

Poison Ivy is a native species that usually gets talked about for only one reason: stem, leaves, and roots all contain urushiol, which causes a rash reaction in most people who come into contact with it. So the message is to avoid it. But it is safe to look and I have enjoyed getting to know some of its characteristics. I have recently been observing how it grows on Cottonwood trees and each picture here is of Poison ivy on a Cottonwood.

Poison Ivy often grows 20 feet or more up the trunk of a large tree.

20191014_190901

20191014_112425

The leaves in fall are red or yellow or orange.

20191014_112903

The fruit is abundant this year. Humans (and other primates, I think) are the only animals that have the rash reaction to the urushiol in Poison Ivy. Birds eat the fruit and deer and insects eat the leaves.

20191014_112412

The craggy bark of Cottonwood trees provides a good surface for the Poison Ivy vines to climb. The vines tend to be hairy, a fact that helps to identify the species during the months of the year when there are no leaves.

20191014_190739

Poison Ivy is not the only colorful vine that climbs trees (the leaves of Virginia Creeper, for example, also turn reddish), but most of the red vines on large trees that a visitor is likely to see within the road loop in the park at this time of the year are Poison Ivy.

This is an ideal time to take a good look and to get a better understanding of its role among the flora and fauna of North America.

20191014_113139

The classic advice of “Look, but Don’t Touch” applies here. Maybe take several good looks.

 

Gray Catbird: Predictable Departure Time

My October bird watching in Eliza Howell Park in Detroit is largely focused on birds Coming, birds Going, and birds Passing Through. “Coming” are those species that breed in the far North and spend their winters here; “Going” birds breed here and head south for the winter; “Passing Through” birds breed north of southern Michigan and winter to the south of us.

Very early October is the time to expect my last sighting of the year of one of my favorite park summer residents: the Gray Catbird.

catbird rufus showing

Photo by Margaret Weber

According to my records, the Catbird is typically here at the end of September but gone by the end of the first week of October. At this time of the year, I often walk through the wildflower field along the edge of the woods checking to see what birds have shown up overnight. The view is slowly transitioning to a Fall look.

20190925_080635

Birds like this area because it is a good place to forage for food, whether that food be insects or seeds (most of the wild flowers are now in seed) or berries from the many vines and shrubs at the edge. For most of the summer Catbirds eat insects, but when fruit is available as it is now, they eat a variety of berries.

catbird wt berry

Photo by Margaret Weber

They are called “catbirds” because their wailing reminds people of a cat meowing. They are mimics, however, and especially when singing earlier in the season, can produce a great variety of sounds.

They spend the winter near the cost in the southeast U.S. or Mexico or in the Caribbean or Central America. (The Range Map is from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.)

20190930_200719

Their spring arrival date is also predictable. I usually first spot one in the park between April 30 and May 4. Shortly thereafter they begin to seek out a nesting location; they place their nests in thickets, several feet off the ground. It often takes careful thicket searching, but I have had some success in finding their nests. Their eggs are a striking color (turquoise green?).

20190601_115347

Several pairs spend the summer in Eliza Howell Park. At least one Catbird was still present yesterday, October 1. It might have been the last day I see one in 2019, 5 full months after the first appearance in the spring.

Thank you for spending the time with us.

20191001_131426

Photo by Margaret Weber

One of the joys of nature watching for me is the predictability of the annual sequence of events. And very few events are more predicable than the time of  the annual departure from Eliza Howell of the Gray Catbird.

Common Milkweed: A Frequent Stop

From May until October, Common milkweed is one of the flowers that I stop at regularly on my rounds in Eliza Howell Park. From being a “weed” in need of eradication, it has in recent years acquired both respectability and fame as a host plant for the larvae of the popular Monarch butterfly. I watch it for that role and for many other reasons.

In September, the plants, many of them 4 feet tall, are dominated by follicles (seed pods).

20190918_163254

When the seed pods open – and some are just beginning to do so – we can witness the delicate beauty of the seeds attached to the silk that allows them to be dispersed by the wind. This is definitely worth seeking out a sunny fall day.

20190918_155013

Common Milkweed is a perennial wildflower native to eastern North America that spreads both by seeds and by underground rhizomes, the second being the reason they are often found in patches. They sprout in May, usually shortly before the Monarchs return. (This year I saw the first Monarch on May 15.)

20190520_101532

Monarchs start laying eggs on the milkweed leaves almost immediately after arrival. Once hatched, the larvae (caterpillars) eat the tender leaves. This picture of a tiny caterpillar is from early June.

20190608_130107

By the end of June, milkweed is beginning to flower. I was especially struck this year by how fragrant the flowers are. Even for someone like me, who does not have the most sensitive nose, it is easy to know that one is in a patch of blooming milkweeds from the fragrance alone.

20190630_200504

20190701_084340

Milkweeds get their name from the fact that leaves and stems, when broken, produce a milky sap. There is a toxicity in the milkweed plant and Monarchs acquire this toxicity from ingesting the leaves as caterpillars. The result is that adult Monarchs are not preyed upon by birds, who have come to know that Monarchs are not healthy food.

Monarch butterflies are not the only insect that benefits from using Common Milkweed as a host plant for young. In September, it is easy to find seed pods covered with Large Milkweed Bugs. In the picture, the left shows adult Large Milkweed Bugs and the right picture is of young ones (nymphs). (Yes, there are Small Milkweed Bugs, but not in this entry.)

20190918_190514

Large Milkweed Bugs have some characteristics similar to Monarchs: milkweed is the host plant on which the young feed; they are orange and black; they acquire a protective toxicity from milkweed; they migrate south for the winter.

I have recognized Common Milkweed for as long as I can remember, but I have only really gotten to know it from my observations in Eliza Howell Park in recent years. The more I know about it, the more I like it.

 

Porcelain Berry: Two Introductions

Before I began my nature study in Eliza Howell Park, I did not know Porcelain berry at all (it is sometimes called Amur peppervine). In the last few years, I find myself giving it more and more attention. Since many visitors to the park are not yet familiar with it, this might be is a good time for an introduction – rather, two introductions.

1.Porcelain berry is an ornamental vine with multicolored berries in September and October.

20190910_104018

Porcelain berry is a native of East Asia that was first brought to this country about 150 years ago as a landscape ornamental. It has escaped gardens and has now become established in a variety of places in the eastern part of the United States, slowly spreading west. It is apparently not yet widespread in Michigan.

This year the berry crop in Eliza Howell is heavy, with many opportunities to find scenes like this.

20190910_103146

The berries ripen to speckled blue, pink, purple, green, and other colors.

20190913_125658

Birds are attracted to the berries, especially when they are as abundant as they are this year. Robins, primarily fruit eaters in the fall, have already started on them.

Humans also find the berries edible, though the 2 – 4 seeds in each berry do not leave much room for pulp.

20190912_164156

2.Porcelain berry is a rapidly growing vine that covers shrubs and small trees.

The eye-catching nature of the berries is not the only way in which I want to introduce this vine. Especially when I am walking with individuals with an interest in habitat and plant variety, I want to point out how it can overtake and shade out other vegetation.

20190910_104147

The vines are very thick and spread rapidly; they can grow up trees 20 feet or more.

20190912_164653

Since I started observing a few patches in the park about a decade ago, it has spread to many other locations. It grows easily from seed. I now see it under many of the larger trees scattered within the road loop, probably started from seeds that passed through the birds that ate the fruit and then perched in the trees.

After a number of years, this is what can happen.

20190913_132514

Meet Porcelain berry: it is an ornamental distinguished by multicolored fruit; it forms thick mats that shade out other plants.

I will continue to observe and seek to know it better. I invite others to do the same.

Goldenrods: A Special September Attraction

I have associated goldenrods with September for some 70 years, ever since I was in the early grades of elementary school and back-to-school days included a yellow-papered “Goldenrod Writing Tablet.”

Now, I enjoy many September hours in the midst of the different goldenrod species in Eliza Howell Park, watching the “critters” they attract.

20190831_095637

20190907_112458

Many of the Eliza Howell summer wildflowers are nearing the end of their blooming season, but the insects appear to find goldenrod nectar plentiful and satisfactory.

Some of those attracted are large and iridescent. Here are two views of the same individual (Great Black Wasp, I think).

20190908_162424

Some are black and white (Bald-faced Hornet and Black and White Wasp).

20190908_163021

The Locust Borer Beetle is one that I do not remember from previous years. It is possible that I missed it or have forgotten, but I wonder if it is now becoming more common in EHP.

20190831_105902

Two that I do remember – and did an entry on last year – are the Goldenrod Soldier Beetle and the Ailanthus Webworm Moth, a moth that does not lead one to think immediately of “moth” when first seen.

20190908_163453

Sometimes the flowers get crowded, but most insects seem to be willing to share.

20190908_164840

It is not just insects that are attracted.

Sometimes there is a mammal (not pictured) wandering among the goldenrods, carrying a little camera.

Snails (Brown-lipped or Banded snails) prefer the stems to the flowers.

20190908_112835 (1)

Goldenrods were for years inaccurately thought to be a major contributor to “hay fever” symptoms. There is no reason to avoid and many reasons to enjoy a large path of goldenrods, definitely one of the highlights of September.

In addition to others not mentioned, the wasps and beetles and bees and moths and snails and I are grateful for their presence.

 

Among Bees and Wasps: Close and Careful

I spend many hours from July into September walking among the wildflowers and among the insects in Eliza Howell Park. My interest in observing insects leads me to try to get very close to them, including to wasps and bees.

20190828_090419

20190828_091048

When I show these kinds of pictures (taken with a phone camera), I often get asked about being so close, about the risk of getting stung. The risk is real, of course, and the questions have led me to reflect upon the fact that I have not (yet!) been stung during any of my many Eliza Howell nature walks.

I have given considerable thought on how to behave among stinging insects. The starting point is the understanding or belief that bees, wasps, hornets do not (normally) resort to stinging unless they are disturbed or threatened or perceive that their nests are threatened. Some threats are accidental, such as stepping on a bee, but our behaviors can greatly reduce the extent to which we are perceived as a threat.

Trying carefully to be non-threatening has led to many opportunities to place the camera within inches of a stinging insect.

20190819_135952

20190818_123309

In trying to practice “non-threatening” behavior, I try to implement two practices: 1) approach insects slowly and deliberately, with no quick movements; 2) when insects focus their attention on me or when they are/appear to be disturbed, stay perfectly (non-threateningly) still.

The first is easier to implement than the second. A slow approach has resulted in dozens of close-up views, especially when the insect is fully engaged in foraging for nectar.

20190828_090502

The second practical principle (stay perfectly still when insects sense you are or might be a threat) is harder to implement. It requires resisting a tendency to run or swat.

Recently I was walking slowly in the flowers when I saw a large bumblebee flying toward me. It came right up to me, buzzing around as it checked me out, landing and crawling briefly on my binoculars and on my arm. I just stood there until it realized that this big old animal was no threat. I don’t know what would have happened if I had waved my arms.

My biggest scare came last year when I was trying to get close-up pictures of a bald-faced hornet nest that was very low on a tree.

20180817_112120

I did what I had not wanted to do. I disturbed the nest by accidentally hitting the branch that held the nest. A swarm of about 10 nest protectors came storming out. My practice of not moving to show that I am not a threat seemed to work. I just stood there while they flew around me for a while. Then they went back to the nest and I breathed a sigh of relief – and attempted no more pictures of the nest that day.

This posting is in the “since you asked” category. My approach seems to have worked so far, but I know that I might get stung tomorrow by some bee or wasp that just wants me to back off. I respect that.